The Flying Monk

Devised by Nathan Chapman, Sarah Hutchinson, Peter Henderson, Sian Green and Henry Oastler with music by Denise Baugh and Kevin Jacks
Soop Productions
Lion & Unicorn Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

Back in the year 1010, a millenium ago, an English monk at the Abbey of Malmesbury in Wiltshire made the first recorded flight by a human (if you don't count the tale of Icarus which helped to inspire it). Brother Eilmer was in the air for about a furlong (200 metres), and only up there for half a minute, but airborne he was and he flew, or at least glided.

This is his story as imagined by Hampshire ensemble company Soop. They are a very likeable lot and their show is packed with delightful ideas but, like so many devised works, it is a bit of a mish mash. It does have a director (Vincent Adams), which has probably helped shape individual episodes but the first half of the play has the air of a series of revue sketches rather than a thought-out drama.

It is cleverly mounted with no set, apart from a couple of boxes to stand or sit on, and with everyone in brown monk's habits which they whip off or turn into cloaks when playing laypersons. Even these minimal changes take time which causes a brief hiatus between some scenes, though an on stage guitarist (Mark Newton) partly helps to bridge them.

The show opens with a plainsong processional (though chanted rather than sung) in which each of the (untonsured) monks delivers one of the rules of the Benedictine Order followed by the vocalised 'Bong' of the abbey bell. A clever concept but not as funny or as well performed as they probably think it. You can judge the humour from the fact that they speak each rule's Roman numbering as, for example, Ex-Vee-Eye-Eye. Crude fun is had from the monks not being allowed to speak - though in fact Benedictines did not take a vow of silence. This kid's comic level in some of the ideas and the acting sits alongside strongly felt characterisation.

Henry Oastler's Eilmer is a gentle dreamer who studies flight with the help of a friendly Jackdaw, an engaging red and green puppet that is voiced and operated by several different actors according to who is available. Peter Henderson also makes a very real seeming Abbot. These performances are matched by Lucy Frederick's Queen Emma - for alongside Eilmer's story we have a picture of the young wife of Aethelred the Unready comically learning how to behave with the English and at the same time showing her growing in statecraft.

(This little known lady married King Cnut as well as Aethelred and was the mother of kings Hardecanute and Edward the Confessor.)

This is a company that knows how to be effective with the simplest means: a swing of the arms and a cry of 'Clang hisss.' and we have a blacksmith; a piece of cloth, a couple of swords and a cry of 'Wotan' and a Viking longship emerges. There is plenty of imagination here but little real content. With the introduction of Emma there is a hint of something deeper but little attempt to explore the idea of flight. It is an opportunist exploitation of an historical oddity that it is very superficial but this hard-working company have no grander pretensions. They offer a light-hearted celebration of Monk Eilmer's aviatory millenium to be enjoyed moment by moment.

Until 10th July 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton