Reach for the sky - Charlie Victor Romeo preview

This article is from 2008

Charlie Victor Romeo

If you have a debilitating fear of flying, Charlie Victor Romeo might not be on top of your must-see Fringe list. But Liz Joseph believes that anyone interested in heart-stopping theatre should check in now

‘Avoid large or abrupt rubber inputs. If normal, left hydraulic system pressure available . . . left hydraulic system available, yes, crosswind limit; do not attempt auto-land.’ A play featuring such lines of impenetrable dialogue may not sound the most dramatic of shows, but Charlie Victor Romeo, the award-winning American work from which these words are taken, is so suspense-filled that audiences and critics alike claim that it is more gripping than any Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Indeed, one reviewer has written that it is, ‘as frightening as a heart attack’. The Washington Post critic insisted that: ‘It isn’t for the squeamish, but if you’ve got the nerve, Charlie Victor Romeo is the scariest show in town,’ adding that it was also the best. He might have also warned his readers that if they had a morbid fear of flying, they should not buy a ticket, because this play, with its passing references to technical jargon such as ‘ILS frequency’, ‘inboard ailerons’ and ‘Mach speed trim’, is based on six major airline emergencies; five disasters and one close call.

Adapted from transcripts of black-box recordings — the title is a military phonetic alphabet code for ‘Cockpit Voice Recorder’ — the play could be regarded as the last word in docudrama since we hear a pilot declare, ‘we’re going down’, followed by the co-pilot’s exclamation, ‘crash landing!” The plane crashes include the 1989 Sioux City crash landing, a 1985 mountain accident that killed 520 Japanese passengers and a 1994 Indiana crash in which a jet plummeted 8000 feet in 35 seconds.

However, the last thing the show, staged by the Collective Unconscious Theater Company, sets out to be is a sensationalist death trip, insists co-creator Bob Berger, when we meet at his base in New York. Rather, he explains, the play depicts: ‘Unbelievable heroism on the part of people who are possibly aware on an academic level that there might not be anything they can do, but who are fighting to perform and persevere at a pitch that is just incredibly courageous. It’s about the human animal. What do you do if something horrible happens?’

The former CNN news technician reveals that Charlie Victor Romeo was partly inspired by his own experiences covering the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800: ‘I had some glimpses of what it was like to see the humanising effects of tragedy.’ But it was while browsing in a Manhattan bookstore with his friend and co-creator of the show, Irving Gregory, that he discovered a copy of a book, The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-Flight Accidents, by Malcolm Macpherson. He recalls looking over Gregory’s shoulder as he read a transcript and saying, ‘maybe we should do a play using that’. The men had just had a despairing conversation about the exploitation of sex and violence in the media and the insidious nature of reality programming on TV.

With another colleague, Patrick Daniels, they assembled the text of the play using transcripts that are in the public domain. Many of the documents are readily available on the internet and in books such as The Black Box and Air Disaster: Volumes 1, 2 & 3 by Macarthur Job. ‘Of course we had to deal with the ethics of this,’ concedes Berger. ‘We felt it was really important to treat the material with respect and with understanding of each actual event’s impact.’ Therefore the script contains every ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in the transcripts: ‘Because it’s about how real people dealt with the most intense experience of their lives; their talent, their heroism and their grace under pressure.’

First staged off-off-Broadway in 1999, the show has been playing across America ever since, winning two Drama Desk awards for unique theatrical experience and outstanding sound design. In fact, the soundscape is brilliantly unnerving, a white-knuckle-ride in itself. Simply staged, the design includes a cockpit, the tip of the aircraft and a screen that introduces each episode by listing the flight number, types of aircraft, and the site and date of the crash.

The most astonishing thing for Berger, his collaborators and their five actors, has been the fact that the show has become a must-see for the US military and aviation industry insiders. Some of them, such as Shawn Chittle, a La Guardia-based aviation safety expert involved in the training of airline pilots, have posted reviews on various websites praising the play’s accuracy. Chittle says: “The most powerful element of this show is clearly the acting. It is hard to act like a pilot; they are truly a rare breed. Any funny business and you look like the cast of Airplane. The company brings an incredible level of realism and drama to the flight deck, and since you know all this actually happened, you can’t help but become mesmerised by the events leading up to and during the incident.’

The US Air Force has videotaped the show and the tape is now used to help members of the military recognise that every job performed on a team, from pumping the correct amount of fuel to scanning a runway for debris before take-off to actually piloting a plane, is vital. It’s also used to train people in understanding how team dynamics make the difference between life and death.

Meanwhile, Charlie Victor Romeo has become required viewing for West Point cadets as part of a course on human error since the piece shows that planes go down because no one has noticed before take-off that the exterior ports essential to the transmission of flight data have been taped over by a maintenance crew; or because a controller failed to notify the crew of geese on the runway; or because of metal fatigue, icing or failure to obtain a proper altimeter setting.

Night after night pilots and air crew have crowded the post-show discussions with Berger and the rest of the company. ‘We were so moved by the fact that they felt the piece was being staged with integrity and forensic accuracy,’ he says. There is the testimony of survivors, too. Wayne and Donna Buxton were on American Airlines Flight 1572, a 1995 Connecticut crash depicted in the play; it was the first time they had flown. They saw the production in Boston in 2006.

Afterwards, Mrs Buxton said that she had not been sure that it was something she wanted to see, but was glad that she went, although, ‘I felt like I was hit by a Mack truck’. Her husband admitted, ‘I never realised the fear the pilot and co-pilot must have had until I saw the play’.

Berger has even had a letter from a general at the Pentagon thanking the company for saving the lives of government employees. ‘That is incredibly rewarding for us, regardless of our political beliefs, because we are talking about safety.’ They framed his letter and put it and their defence contract in the window of their tiny, cash-strapped downtown theatre, which sadly is no more. ‘To be of use outside the arts community with a piece of art that is a good piece of art, and also potentially something that is life-saving, is the most rewarding thing that’s ever happened to me or the other authors of the play.’

Charlie Victor Romeo, Udderbelly's Pasture, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 2-25 Aug (not12), 7.40pm, £12-£14.50 (£10.50-£13). Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £8.

Charlie Victor Romeo

  • 3 stars

Created entirely from the black box transcripts of six airline emergencies, this theatrical documentary from New York's Collective: Unconscious is compelling stuff, though there's a niggling doubt throughout that there's much to the impact of this show other than audience titilation. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe'.