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This new, big-thinking Australian play takes place in Kenya, London and everywhere in between
Two young women leave Australia to change the world. Emily (Airlie Dodds) travels to Kenya as a volunteer to build a school for children living in poverty, whether or not it’s what the local community actually needs. Meanwhile, Luisa (Ebony Vagulans) has flown from Sydney to Oxford University on a scholarship. She wants to figure out why her favourite birds are dying, falling from the sky.
But then a man falls from the sky, and everything changes for Emily and Luisa.
Julian Larnach’s Flight Paths is asking big, ethical questions about global politics, foreign aid and privilege. Is there any merit in voluntourism, or does its often-sketchy ethics outweigh the work performed by unskilled labourers and teachers? Can you make a better world from one of its oldest, most conservative institutions – and will there ever be a place for you inside those walls if you’re not white and upper-class?
The play is carefully crafted and thoughtful, and while it’s occasionally laboured (Larnach is careful to get his big social questions across, even though it’s sometimes at the expense of the play’s momentum), there’s a welcome firecracker element to the dialogue. The plot twists are telegraphed early and often, which lessens their impact into a gentle landing, but the final scene – when all the story threads finally come together – is still moving.
Luisa is the heart of the play, and Vagulans gives the role an open-hearted accessibility; it feels as though we are on the journey ‘across the pond’ with her, and her wins and losses hit hard. She finds an ally in Anika (Monica Kumar), who seems so at home in this strange, stiff world – but nothing in this play is straightforward, and we soon find out what it costs to be embedded within an archaic social hierarchy. When Luisa crosses paths with two men (both played with note-perfect condescension and charm, in turn, by Brandon McClelland), we see them through her eyes and watch her consider her place in the world alongside people who see her as a cause, or a prop, rather than as a person.
Over in Kenya, Emily views Adhama (Richie Morris), the local volunteer leader, in much the same way. They might be building a school together, but their reasons for helping out on the project are vastly different. Adhama is a crucial counter to Emily’s well-meaning white-saviour tendencies, and so too is Charlie (Aileen Huynh), a volunteer from China whose reasons for working in the area are entirely pragmatic.
Directed by Anthea Williams on a smooth, abstract set full of ambiguous curves and rises that suggest a map (designed by Jeremy Allen), Flight Paths feels thoughtful, hopeful and hopeless in alternating moments, and serves as a launchpad for bigger conversations about capitalism, colonialism, and classism (it seems perfect for high school students).
Williams brings clarity and empathy to the fore, and uses lights (by Verity Hampson) and sound (Michael Toisuta) to create the vastly different worlds of Oxford and Nairobi, letting them intersect, overlap and interplay to remind us that all these story threads are interconnected.
Flight Paths feels long (it’s staged in traverse – the audience sits on opposite sides of the stage, like at a sporting match or fashion show, which means you can see your fellow audience members across the way shifting in their seats) and it does feel a bit like a sociology lesson. But the cast, led by Vagulans, is full of warmth, curiosity and something you might recognise in yourself: a desire to do good and create meaningful change in a complicated world.