“Flying is the easy part,” Jean Batten tells us with a smirk and a quirk of a brow. She struggles with the judgement and disapproval of men, who fear a woman will do what they never have: cross the Tasman from England to New Zealand, in her tiny plane, and break the world record. Convention and propriety are the cause of Jean’s main frustrations. Those who disapprove of her adventures seems much more of a concern to this plucky and charming character than any personal risk carried by her flying exploits.
The effort and thought that has gone into the production comes through in the quality of acting and visual design. John Parker’s set design relies upon long beams of bare wood and a central step ladder that reaches towards the ceiling to evoke the structure of a plane. This creates a great playground for Jean to explore and recreate her memories. The backdrop of beige fabric simultaneously brings to mind luxurious hotel curtains and the colour of harsh sands and deserts that feature in her stories. The clever props designs create a lovely longing state within Jean’s cream hotel room, reminding us of her desire to keep moving forward. All of this works nicely in the studio space at the Basement Theatre, creating a cosy tent-like feeling which invites us into Jean’s little world.
Flaxworks have created a meaningful work which explores the sentiments of 1930’s New Zealand, which are effortlessly carried by its key actor. Alex Ellis’s posh, old fashioned New Zealand accent is immediately charming, and she brings a sweet and genuine energy to the character which makes us believe in Jean as a real woman. Ellis’s moments of emotional intensity are her most engaging.
The script hints at her exhaustion, as Jean explains she’s only slept eight hours in eight days of flying. This tiredness could have been developed as an obstacle for Ellis to play against. For the most part, her Jean remains coherent and extremely plucky.
One of Jean’s recollections that affects me the most is the way she accepts invitations to dinner and gifts from a male patron, all smiles, before her grin drops and she tells us coldly, “Don’t you dare judge.” The dialectic between Jean’s womanhood and her fame as a pilot is possibly the most interesting theme Ormsby explores in his script. Ellis is able to flesh out Batten in these human moments of longing, whether they be for flight, her fiance, or just to be left alone by the press and be allowed to do as she pleases. Yes, even if she pleases to entertain the company of interested men. Her recklessness in the air is understandable to us, as we learn of how much disparagement she faces.
As an extended monologue of sorts, the space in which the play is set is slightly abstract and doesn’t require total realism and consistency. However, we needed more variety. The script requires something else to break up the action of Jean reminiscing, recreating, and swearing out the naysayers (and repeat).
The text sometimes becomes a bit too flowery for my taste, reminding me more of an inspirational quote book than of how a human being talks. Perhaps Jean Batten really was that lyrical. I’m no expert on her, but the creative team clearly are. From the programme alone, the passion for the aviatrix and her achievements is clear. Director Amanda Rees has a love for Jean which shines through brilliantly in her direction of Ellis. But the audience needs to be allowed to love Jean just as much, rather than growing numb to her through the repetition.
A mention must be made of Elizabeth Whiting’s clever and surprising costume design. We first see Jean in her iconic flying jacket, helmet and goggles, only to have those items peeled away to reveal a lovely silk gown. This costume doesn’t restrict her movement at all, often falling in a way that reminds me of creamy silk overalls, and other times making her look like a total movie star. Ultimately, it’s a costuming choice that allows her femininity as well as her recklessness, stubbornness and humour.
Miss Jean Batten is certainly educational and necessary. If we can have historic New Zealand plays such as Once on Chunuk Bair, which celebrates masculine military courage, then of course we should have theatre about the great successes of New Zealand women such as Batten. I was simply left hoping for more to happen within the narrative, rather than mere recollections.
Miss Jean Batten is presented by Flaxworks Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 9 April. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Sykes