For this reason, it’s also a difficult show to get a firm grip on. It’s not just the use of aerial silks which gives Flight Paths a circus-like feel, it’s also the placement of so many different elements alongside each other. Whilst there are quiet moments, such as an effective opening where Cavallo and Houbolt explore the space together and describe it to each other (and consequently to us), there are also times where the combination of music, projections, and atmospheric sounds makes it hard to focus. The spatialised tracking used in the sound design means that unseen voices move with precision around the space, fully surrounding us in a way which sometimes feels overwhelming. As a sighted audience member, I’m so used to theatre prioritising visual storytelling that I notice myself trying to ‘watch’ the audio, looking around the space as the sound moves, or letting the soft, blurred, close-ups in the projections steal my attention. But despite moments where I get a bit lost, Flight Paths feels like one of those shows where whatever you personally take from it is the right thing, an experience so densely textured that it will deliver, on some level, to everyone.
Taken as a play, there are some clunky moments. The performers introduce several anecdotes with prompts like ‘tell me again that thing you were telling me earlier’. The additional framing of an airport terminal to top and tail the narrative feels like one layer too many. And whilst the onstage performances by Cavallo and Houbolt are controlled, clear, and witty, the consistently warm camaraderie between them means the piece lacks tension, and instead is given shape by its multiple component parts. But Flight Paths does find a strong climactic moment in Cavallo and Houbolt’s unforgettable aerial silk routine. As the two move in time to an audio description track narrated by themselves, complete with grunts and groans and tongue-in-cheek commentary about how uncomfortable some of the most spectacular positions are to hold, it really drives home that their performance isn’t just about what it looks like, but how it feels.
And at a moment when the accessibility in theatre is undergoing fierce interrogation, it’s worth pointing out that Flight Paths demonstrates how easy it is to get it right with a little bit of care. The touch tour programme notes on Extant’s website are something I wish more companies would provide for new shows, because making these kinds of resources available has scope to include so many more people who would otherwise assume a show is not for them. Speaking personally, as someone who loves new work but also finds the experience of sitting in a theatre anxiety-provoking, reading a more detailed description of a show beforehand than there’s usually space for in the marketing copy can make the difference between a play causing the intended amount of tension, and a play causing panic. And there are so many more ways that theatre-makers can treat their audiences with care without compromising their work – ways which can shape the work, elevate it. That care is evidently at the core of Flight Paths, and it demonstrates how different kinds of storytelling are unlocked when we consider the full experience of every audience member, and how to enhance that experience as much as possible.
Flight Paths was on at the Leicester Curve from 19-20 February. It tours to London and Wolverhampton in March. More info here.