Learning to Fly review – a riveting, remarkable hour of theatre

The Guardian

As theatre recovers from the pandemic, many makers at the fringe this year seem to be questioning the fundamentals of the artform. What makes theatre theatre? What’s needed and what’s not? With Learning to Fly – as, indeed, with his earlier Songs of Friendship trilogy of shows – writer-performer James Rowland demonstrates how the best performances can do an awful lot with very little.

There’s no set, no sound design, no costume changes. The only music comes from a portable record player, which Rowland operates himself. It’s just him, us and a story. With enchanting simplicity, Rowland tells us about an unlikely friendship from his youth, with the reclusive old lady who lived down the street. It starts, like many a fairytale or horror movie, with a creepy, overgrown house and its similarly sinister inhabitant. But Rowland repeatedly sets up tropes and expectations only to knowingly subvert them, as the relationship between this lonely teenager and his enigmatic neighbour gathers layers of heart-tugging complexity.

It’s a deceptive piece. The story seems, in some ways, so small. Rowland narrates events from across a relatively short time span, mostly confined to a cul-de-sac in Didsbury. Not a lot happens, really, over the course of the hour-long running time. But just like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – which provides the musical and dramaturgical backbone of the show – Learning to Fly connects the trivial to the cosmic. In its specificity, this narrative deftly touches on profound truths about what it means to be human. It captures, with remarkable precision, the joyful, sad, ridiculous mess of it all.

It helps, of course, that Rowland is a consummate storyteller. He’s often puppyish in his enthusiasm, bouncing around the stage with seemingly boundless energy. But he also makes brilliantly controlled use of silence and space, allowing story beats to land and sit with us. Few performers can hold a moment like he can, trusting in the narrative world and the relationship with the audience that he has crafted. And all from nothing but a story, a shared space, and a bit of time spent together.