Idle Motion’s charming production, first staged on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010, takes the audience on a deeply touching journey through time and across continents. Anna is travelling to collect her estranged grandmother’s ashes from South Africa. Though the two never met, Anna feels bound to find out more about her late grandmother, and does so through old letters and strangers’ recollections. Back in the UK, Anna’s boyfriend James is recording a radio programme about early female pioneers of aviation. As Anna’s journey progresses her grandmother’s story becomes linked to those of James’s historic heroines.
The Vanishing Horizon delivers an intriguing take on the nature of separation in an apparently shrinking world. Anna’s grandmother and James’s early fliers relied on diaries and airmail to communicate. Such methods are the only reliable way for Anna to learn about her family, as weak phone signals and delayed flights increase the psychological distance between her, her destination and her home. The written word’s permanence is superior to snatched moments of conversation across time zones – and, anyway, it tells a bigger story. The shrunken modern world, with its impersonal airports and exhausting long-haul flights is often less brilliant than it seems, when compared with the excitement and derring-do of the past.
The company tell that big story exceptionally well. They make superb use of the small performance space, use of light and shadow to create a sense of space or intimacy as the scene demands. At times Anna’s personal discoveries are starkly lit, playing out like a child’s shadow puppetry against a bedroom wall; at other times it’s easy to imagine her grandmother’s sweeping African vista, tinged orange with sunset and pink with lazy flamingos. Although the switches between past and present come close to being bewildering on occasion, somehow the sense of distance created between memories and the present make the story all the more convincing.
Remarkably, the only props of note in Paul Slater’s set are old suitcases and paper planes. These suitcases double as real luggage while also forming part of the set itself: one becomes a poky hotel en suite bathroom, another a grimy phone box, yet another a piece of fuselage through which we see Anna mid-flight. Paper planes are an obvious prop for a play about aviation, but here they add to the childish appeal of these intrepid stories about risky flights – and to the dark stories of crashed planes and lives lost during wartime.
The five-strong cast work incredibly well together. Ellie Simpson excels as Anna, finding a careful balance between intrepid genealogist and lonely traveller, while Nicholas Pitt’s James is believably frustrated with, and supportive of, his partner. Grace Chapman, Sophie Cullen and Kate Stanley provide excellent support as aviation pioneers. Throughout the production the cast’s graceful physicality help generate all the bustle of airports both modern and vintage.
Remarkably, this all occurs in just an hour. But though the production is short, its audience will be left thinking about it long afterwards.