Review Ballooniana

Review: Ballooniana! at New Wimbledon Theatre Studio

Review: Ballooniana! at New Wimbledon Theatre Studio

A great show to lift the spirits – Jenny Booth reviews.


New Wimbledon Theatre is much to be praised for encouraging up-and-coming dramatists through its Premieres season of new writing, where fresh plays can receive their first public airing. This week it presents a perfect gem in Ballooniana, a comic vaudeville entertainment that explores the daring, the wonder and the melancholy of man’s first efforts to fly. Writer and director Alexander Knott has crafted a frothy, light-as-air show from a fragment of history that is both true and delightfully bizarre.

The central story concerns how Joseph Montgolfier noticed that hot air swelled and lifted the clothes drying in front of a fire; and how from this observation he and his brother Jacques invented the first hot air balloon, and in 1783 demonstrated it in front of the King of France, sending a rooster, a duck and a sheep called Montauciel up into the clouds. (History relates that the sheep was afterwards adopted by Marie-Antoinette.) Interlocking with that boisterous and mainly joyful story are separate, more sombre storylets on the same theme – of Daedalus and his son Icarus escaping from Crete on homemade wings, only to meet with tragedy; and of Neil Armstrong experiencing emptiness after the monumental experience of becoming the first man to step on the moon.

The audience feels in safe hands from the start with the assured performances and sparkling rapport of Freya Sharp and Zoe Grain, who alternate like quicksilver between being in character as the brothers, conveying the plot through mime and a dash of puppetry, wisecracking with the audience and breaking into razzmatazz dance flourishes. In amongst this whirlwind of incident they even achieve moments of genuine pathos. Their antics are eloquently accompanied by musician and composer James Demaine, who finally gets his turn in the limelight by playing the grandiose and petulant king. Boxless Theatre has made an excellent job of the production, with Stephen Grain’s minimalist set – four wooden steps and three suitcases – leaving the audience’s imagination free to take flight. The show runs for the rest of the week, and I highly recommend it to lift the spirits.

New Wimbledon Theatre Studio, until 1 October

Image credit: Charles Flint