This is a gem of a show. Written by Phil Ormsby and beautifully performed by Alex Ellis, pioneering aviatrix Jean Batten is convincingly and engagingly recreated.
Set in October 1936, Miss Jean Batten waits in her Sydney hotel room for clear weather to complete her historic flight from the UK to New Zealand. As she waits, she is assailed with messages – from proposals of marriage to pleas to give up – and memories. All of which she shares with us, the audience, her confidantes, with whom she can be completely her true self. Well, almost. Jean Batten does not present herself, ever, as anything less than in control and capable. And this is Jean Batten’s story from her point of view, and all the better for it: withering put downs are infinitely more entertaining than diplomatically seeing the situation from all sides.
Dubbed the Greta Garbo of the skies, determined, charming (when it suits her) and witty, Batten proved herself to be courageous in more ways than one. Actress Ellis went up in a Gypsy Moth as part of her research, and one does not doubt her authority as she talks us through how the plane works and crouches in her ‘cockpit’ atop a pair of wooden ladders, waving a torch looking out for a place to land. Batten crash landed at least twice and wasn’t scared off. Even more than her courage in the face of death, her determination to proceed despite the lack of funds, despite the constant disparagement and discouragement from her father, boyfriends and countless others who patronised and belittled her talent – stop, before your luck runs out! – is extraordinary.
Accomplished director Amanda Rees has Ellis darting in and out of moods and spaces, aided by Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s lighting and John Parker’s simple wooden set, that transforms into benches, tables, stages, planes, but never home. Dressed in a flowing gown and flying jacket (Elizabeth Whiting gets the details right: Jean always kept an evening gown in her luggage) Jean is presented as the star she had planned to be.
And yet, despite the excitement, the ambition, the thrill of success, there is a sorrow – a sense that things could fall apart at any moment. Her insistence on being in control of every detail of her flying missions played a vital part in her survival, never mind success at breaking records – but left her isolated, suspicious of the motivations and competence of many of those around her. When she loved, she loved intensely, and everyone else didn’t matter: perhaps she suspected ‘everyone else’ felt the same way about her. A solo show is absolutely the right way to tell this story of a woman who had so many admirers and despite all her beauty, wit, and talent, so few friends. ‘She rises above it all’ – but for an hour this Miss Batten is on our level, letting us into her world, and you can’t help but adore her.
At the Basement Theatre until 9 April