When I was little, I had a real thing for animal habitats. My number one dream was to be small enough to fit inside a warren, travelling through the earthy, labyrinthine passages until I came across a furry bundle of bunny family. Visiting a nest would be a close second (though to be honest I spent more time trying to convince birds to perch on my finger like an animated princess than imagining us being roomies). Warrens and shells and sets and mouse holes intrigued me: their interiors were hidden, the happenings inside were secret. Fine Chisel’s Flit, Flap & Fly taps directly into this fascination by welcoming audiences inside a nest.
Not immediately, though. First, we hover at the edges, as a baby bird and her dad (Maia Ayling and George Williams) hop and peck and play and squawk. It’s a noisy nest – interpreting ‘bird song’ literally, Flit, Flap & Fly is packed with music, springing from the “pee whits” and “rrrrreeee-tuuus” of their tuneful made-up language. Here is our first glimpse at what transpires in the tree-tops when our feathered friends are left to their own devices – they love to dance, and sing, and play instruments. It’s a joyful introduction to the two characters, and the time spent looking in at the unaware birds conjures up the charm of peeking into mysterious spaces. It’s intended to make the moment we’re eventually invited in all the more special.
But we’re outside of the action a moment too long; curiosity becomes concern, and an unease settles over the young audience that never fully dissipates. The inside of the nest is an unknown, and not in a nice way. The trilling, tweeting birds, with their silly sounds and funny physicality, are alarming. There’s a reluctance to step across the threshold, and the shift in atmosphere is palpable.
It’s surprising, because the production’s concept and intentions seem on the mark for a young audience. Flit, Flap & Fly is about growing up and flying the nest. The show is interactive, full of call and response moments and opportunities for the audience to flap their own wings. There’s gentle slapstick and guzzling of gummy worms, offset by the tender relationship between a parent and child. The content and environment are familiar to the suggested age range. Created by Geoff Brown of Spinney Hollow, the nest is built from woven twigs, with us all perching inside like one big bird family.
For some performance those ingredients, I’m sure, will alchemise, but on this occasion they don’t, and it feels like that moment of limbo at the beginning is key – the audience need to be better prepared for their experience. In their flat caps and t-shirts, communicating in melodious but meaningless gibberish, possibly it’s not obvious that the characters are meant to be birds, and the prolonged lack of clarity is unnerving. Maybe the audience needed to nestle amongst the branches immediately, without time to fear what stepping inside this ‘other’ space would mean. Perhaps a trail of twigs, from the foyer to the nest, would have helped. Maybe meeting the birds outside the auditorium, and following them into their home, could have worked. Or each child in the audience could have been given a feather, needed to line the nest. Whatever it takes, getting this crucial juncture right is worth it, because the rest of Flit, Flap & Fly deserves more than a muted response.
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