Review: Those Magnificent Men – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Fame is fleeting. Ask most people who was first to fly across the Atlantic and they’ll probably say Charles Lindberg. He was in fact only the 104th person to fly the Atlantic. Eight years earlier, two Englishmen made the maiden nonstop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Their names may now be remembered only by ‘weirdoes, bores and Airfix kit freaks’ but, at the time, these aviation pioneers were international superstars.

History also has the tendency to be rewritten, both by those involved in monumental events to boost their appeal, and more common by later generations looking for added glamour and sparkle.

Both this historical tale and the resulting airbrushing of historical fact form the base for Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s warm and witty comedy.

In June 1919 John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown find themselves thrown together in a partnership that sees them cross the Atlantic together with their flimsy canvassed covered Vickers Vimy converted twin engine bomber. As the pair race against other competing teams to claim the £10,000 prize for the first non-stop crossing the English gentlemanly spirit seems at odds with more polished efforts of their competitors.

All seems a fairly straightforward retelling of this forgotten tale, but the problem is our actors can’t quite agree on the story. Alcock believes passionately in historical accuracy while Brown is keen to spice things up to entice a Hollywood action bio pic.

There’s precedence in Alcock and Brown’s own accounts of the flight, both of which contain small, subtle difference.

The tale itself, though, really needs no enhancements; the men’s tale from World War One prison camps, to their historic triumphant 16½-hour flight in a flimsy open cockpit plane is the stuff of pure action adventure but with the twist that this actually happened.

Although Mitchell and Nixon’s script is packed full of comedy it also manages to be deeply poignant and touching, looking at a partnership that only lasted a year but shaped not only aviation history but also had a deep impact on a personal level. It is also a production that remains timeless, dealing with the 1919 flight as well as taking pot shot at the current trend of Hollywood to gloss over historical inaccuracies.

This is a lovingly crafted production, full of beautiful touches, from the news-sheet ‘lavish souvenir brochure’ through to the RP accents – every detail evokes the sense of a golden age in endeavour.

Ian Shaw and Richard Earl deliver faultless performances as the aviators, perfectly balancing the historical facts with spot on comedy. Daniel Buckroyd’s direction moves the piece along at great pace while still allowing time to emotionally connect with the duo.

There is ingenious staging from Helen Fownes-Davies and her packing case strewn set that transforms into a recreation of the Vickers Vimy plane in front of our very eyes. Tragically these aviation pioneers soon faded into historical obscurity and six months after the record breaking flight one was dead and the other would never fly again.

Lindberg may have had his Spirit of St Louis but in Those Magnificent Men it is the Spirit of Alcock and Brown that soars. A first class flight.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

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