Taking its maiden flight, this rather unusual play is one out of the box

Who imagined there would be a musical made about the invention of the aviation industry’s black box? Nobody, which may be why this show works

May 13, 2024, updated May 14, 2024
Michael Cormick plays David Warren, the Aussie inventor of the black box flight recorder, in the groundbreaking musical theatre production Black Box.

Michael Cormick plays David Warren, the Aussie inventor of the black box flight recorder, in the groundbreaking musical theatre production Black Box.

Review by Cameron Pegg

A clever musical theatre number can condense years into mere minutes.

We observe this phenomenon during the first act of Black Box, the pioneering new Australian musical from Paul Hodge, making its world premiere at QPAC this month.

In the bright and breezy Show and Tell, student teachers David Warren (Michael Cormick) and Ruth Meadows (Helen Dallimore) meet, fall in love and get engaged.

The foundation of their relationship is crucial to the story and to the very existence of the black box flight recorder, which David invented in the face of deep scepticism from the aviation industry and a toxic case of tall-poppy syndrome.

Beyond its capacity to entertain, Black Box represents a vital history lesson for Australian audiences.

Like its namesake device, Black Box also proposes a daring technological experiment. A pair of headphones is slung over each seat back and these are essential for understanding the sonic world that Hodge has created to tell this story.

Cormick and Dallimore are the only performers who speak and sing in real time – the rest of the cast (and musicians) made studio-quality pre-recorded contributions. The engineering of these layers into something which makes sense – narratively, spatially and aurally – is theatrical chutzpah of the highest order.

But does it work? The answer is yes – with a few caveats. A show such as this is entirely reliant on the technology that underpins it. Thankfully, there was one sustained audio dropout only on opening night – and it was quickly resolved.

Taking the headsets off demonstrates the show’s vulnerability – Cormick and Dallimore perform in the absence of any other live sound, relying on their in-ear monitors to hear all of the backing tracks, as a pop singer does.

The quality of what the audience hears is adequate to suspend our disbelief and does feel intimate, particularly in the cosy Cremorne Theatre at QPAC. Discerning theatre goers may notice some audio balance issues between the tracks and layers, which aren’t as seamless as they could be.

However, Cormick expertly navigates the technical and emotional labyrinth at the show’s heart. His David Warren was set on the path to create the black box as a boy, following his father’s untimely death in a plane crash.

A ham-radio enthusiast, Warren initially pursued the study of the chemistry of aviation fuel before realising an in-flight audio recorder was the key to unlocking future flight disasters. (Until the invention of the black box, plane wreckage yielded few concrete clues about what had gone so horribly wrong.)

Cormick must engage us as a child, a young adult, a middle-aged man and as an elderly person looking back on his achievements. He succeeds in all of these phases, capturing a curious and heartbroken boy who finds the love of his life, and almost loses her, thanks to his obsession with solving the riddle of his father’s death. Cormick’s warm tenor voice shines through the storytelling passages – and his timing is perfect.

On many occasions Cormick performs alongside a character who is nothing more than a disembodied voice and some canny lighting design from Ben Hughes. These scenes, particularly those involving David’s encouraging colleague Laurie Coombes (Bernard Curry), are highly amusing and utterly believable.

Dallimore provides emotional ballast as the sunny, loyal Ruth. It is Ruth who must hold the fort while David is burning the midnight oil at work – a challenge that becomes increasingly fraught as their family grows. Dallimore’s delivery is honest and highly compassionate, but she struggles to find her pitch as the show progresses.

Hodge’s commitment to this world-premiere work is herculean. He produced the show in addition to writing the book, music, lyrics and orchestrations. His score spans multiple genres and makes good use of loops and repeats – a direct expression of the black box’s  “voice”. Show and Tell provides a key musical motif, as does One Side of My Mind and the groovy Unofficially.

David’s defiantly Australian character and idiom are superbly captured in Hodge’s music, as news footage incorporated into the show demonstrates. And he has one of the best in the business as director – former Brisbane Festival artistic director David Berthold.

Black Box is a timely and likeable piece of theatre that celebrates a singular piece of Australian ingenuity. Fittingly, its technical audacity also sets a new precedent for how musical theatre can be staged.

Black Box plays QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre until May 19

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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