James Rowland brings his self-penned show, Learning to Fly back to Edinburgh, after a successful run during the 2022 August Fringe at Summerhall. Traverse 2 sees the show brought into the round, and a more formal theatrical setting, but if the change at all phases Rowland, it doesn’t show.
Before the show has begun, Rowland begins charming the audience, a slightly chaotic comedy hype-man for his own production. It sets a tone he perpetuates throughout. The show itself exists in orbit around a vintage portable record player and a copy of Beethoven’s 9th, the Choral Symphony. Without any other staging, the onus falls to the actor-creator to weave the scene and the short list of characters who will populate this dramatised memoir.
First is young James himself, an often bed-bound youth infrequently found in school, and more often placed into the care of his ‘spooky’ neighbour Jane, whilst his mum goes to work. Jane, the old Ying to his juvenile Yang begins as a figure of fear, but time, music, and the mutual need for friendship quickly begin to work a peculiar magic. It’s told with huge enthusiasm, affection, and a highly developed storytelling talent.
Though advertised as a ‘mix of theatre, comedy and music…’ in truth there’s little theatre at all. This is a storytelling show, and if it were booked during the Scottish International Storytelling Festival it would go down a storm. What characterisation Rowland indulges is the icing on the cake of a tale well told. Early in proceedings, James tells his audience of his enduring fondness for audiobooks, and it shows.
Just as with the best storytellers, Rowland is rarely static, using motion combined with words carefully smithed into a rhythmic, evocative script. The record player and black disc are never left orphaned, the memoir consistently returning to them to manifest the show’s love affair with Beethoven’s choral masterpiece. Where some memories are summoned by smell or sight, this is a memory engraved into vinyl grooves.
The story itself of an unlikely, transformative friendship peppered with at least two spectacularly colourful incidents is made for telling. Continually funny, the show revels in the naivety of young James, and the undeniably laugh-out-loud qualities of his and Jane’s odd-couple relationship. Learning to Fly is also inherently nostalgic, the sort of story lovingly brought out during family gatherings over the second or third bottle of wine. Rowland brings a time in his youth to vivid life, reliving it with the audience, and emitting his delight and pain on a wide-spectrum bandwidth.
Life, of course, is rarely as tidy as fiction, and though Rowland does find a very suitable landing strip for his flight to the past, it is necessarily anti-climactic. Still, he holds admirably true to the little record player and to Beethoven and closes with an uplifting trip into the philosophical. Learning to Fly is not a play, but it is a well-crafted and memorable storytelling adventure
Featured Image: Rosie Collins
Learning to Fly is created by James Rowland and Attic with support from Arts Council England, Arts at the Old Fire Station (Oxford), The Spring (Havant), The Attenborough (Leicester) and Tobacco Factory Theatres (Bristol).