As we wait for the show to begin, the stage has been set before us. The Flying Duck provides a comfortable, if slightly unconventional, space for Figurehead Theatre’s inaugural show, a piece of new writing by Sìne Harris entitled Mr. Earhart.
The actors are dispersed, one standing in a doorway, two reading from books and a couple slumped in chairs on the stage, covered in black paper shavings. As we wait for the show to begin, a violin chord is repeatedly struck, its hypnotic repetition invoking a strangely funerary or somnambulistic tone. A camera is set up upstage and it provides a live-stream that is projected onto the back wall.
When the show starts, the couple in the chairs suddenly come to life and shake the paper shavings off. This stunning moment encapsulates the core theme of Mr. Earhart: history dusts itself off and returns with some vigour.
The play weaves through Amelia Earhart’s (Kirsty Black) relationship with her husband-come-manager, George Putnam (Michael Cartledge), illustrating his control of her career and publicity and therefore, by extension, her life. Although this is Amelia’s story, Putnam is the narrator and Sìne Harris’ script provides a nuanced exploration of their marriage. With this, the show’s strength lies in its post-dramatic tones, where the emphasis is placed on who tells the story and how, particularly illuminating how history and publicity can be written and manipulated.
Indeed, Harris’ script is a powerful backbone for the show, and indicates a playwright with great potential. Although dialogue is occasionally clunky and expository, there is an undeniable humanity in many of the exchanges and the script shakes off the paper shavings of history and breathes life into Amelia Earhart’s story, deftly navigating her life without lingering excessively on sentimental details.
However, the script is unfortunately betrayed by its staging, with props and actors frequently hindering the swift journey through history. Props vary from clever to inconvenient; the camera acts as an excellent theatrical device, but unpleasant distraction as actors fumbled with the lens cap. The use of light, paper frames as aeroplane wings is elegant although uncoordinated, and it is difficult to focus on Amelia’s moments of airborne liberty when there is clumsy shifting into place, lighting torches, moving the paper wings, switching off torches (one torch is inevitably uncooperative and remains lit longer than the others), and then awkward shuffling out of place.
Prop distraction could be forgiven if the ensemble were strong enough to deliver the script, but it is a mixed bag and there is a sense of insufficient direction. Cartledge has a potent stage presence and helpfully holds the show together as its narrator, even if he occasionally teeters towards melodrama, but his strength is mostly visible in contrast to some weaker performances around him. Although Black has a warm and engaging presence, she seems ill at ease on stage and this discomfort is difficult to reconcile with her central role in the plot. She frequently shrinks into herself, which strikes as inconsistent with her character’s brashness and independence, and so Amelia’s desire for freedom from Putnam’s constructed narrative is disappointingly unconvincing. Following this, Sorley McLean and Clare Patterson are entertaining and convincing in the several minor roles they play (McLean especially), and though Alkmini Nikopoulou is effectively sensual as Amy Johnson, she is virtually inaudible and allows a good performance to go to waste.
Considering all this, Mr. Earhart is a show that is halfway from being excellent. Figurehead Theatre’s promise of “taking a loosely realist technology centred approach” on new writing shines through the play wonderfully, but it is my hope that its first show acts as an indication of future potential, rather than a conclusive display of ability.