Two of the best writers I know are friends of mine from my Brighton days; Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon. Their expertly wrought comedy sketches decorate many an Edinburgh Festival and improve a few otherwise lacklustre Radio 4 comedy shows, but to see them at their finest you need to seek out their plays. The latest of these is Those Magnificent Men, which is currently touring, and arrives at London’s Greenwich Theatre this week. I was lucky enough to catch it last Saturday in the tiny village hall at Ideford, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Those Magnificent Men tells the story of Alcock and Brown, as played by CP Hallam and Richard Earl (above), the pioneer aviators who were the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, taking off from Newfoundland and landing in a peat bog in the west of Ireland. They are almost forgotten figures now, and part of the purpose of the play is to remind us of their huge achievement, and to celebrate the old-fashioned yet admirable British virtues which they represent; pluck, modesty, professionalism, and an almost insane willingness to take risks.
Actually, I think Mitchell & Nixon share these same virtues, although the risks they take are intellectual rather than physical: you seldom find them clambering onto the wings of biplanes to scrape ice from the engines, but all their plays mix uproarious comedy and deep seriousness in ways that lesser writers would never be able to pull off. In Those Magnificent Men, for instance, without ever being disrespectful to the real Alcock and Brown, they manage to turn their heroes into a classic British comedy duo in the tradition of Morecambe and Wise, with CP Hallam’s Alcock the long-suffering straight man and Richard Earl’s Brown the buffoon. And as if history and comedy were not enough, there are points where the characters step out of the action and era of the play to discuss the whole notion of biographical dramas, and shoot down in flames the recent trend for plays and films based on the lives of politicians, comedians and celebrities; works which twist the facts to make the story more interesting and whose authors, as Mitchell & Nixon write in their introduction to the play, “exploit a subject’s name and standing while availing themselves of the privileges of fiction’. The truth, they insist, is always more interesting, and they prove it by using no made-up dialogue during the long airborne sequence which forms most of the second act, relying instead on Alcock and Brown’s own accounts of their adventure.
The staging, by New Perspectives Theatre, is witty and imaginative. The duo’s Vickers Vimy aeroplane is played by what appears to be a table and some tea chests with dustbin lids for propellors. It only just fitted into Ideford Village Hall, a space not much bigger than my living room, but such is the magic of theatre, and so good are the performances, that it was perfectly possible to believe that it was flying through fog banks high over the Atlantic.
This is a superb piece of theatre, beautifully written and engagingly acted, and it deserves to be widely seen. If you live in the London area, you should hurry to the Greenwich Theatre, where it will be showing from the 5th to the 8th of May.