Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Flyboy is Alone Again This Christmas, Barbican Centre

Review: Flyboy is Alone Again This Christmas, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 29.12.2010

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like Flyboy, Matthew Robins’ mutant schoolboy, half-human, half-fly. I like the useless and arbitrary nature of his essential characteristic. I like the winding, limitless quality of his adventures; the way that a whole host of bonkers things befall him and get dealth with somehow or other. And I certainly like the stylishness of Robins’ shadow-puppetry: fragile, clumsy and homespun as it is. But in this gig-cum-cabaret session, my god, Flyboy gets underneath your skin.

If the average life expectancy of a fly is between 24 and 48 hours, two and a quarter is equivalent to several human years. To survive that length of time, Flyboy needs a grand narrative. And there really is no reason why he shouldn’t get one. It certainly worked when The Death of Flyboy was projected onto the vast National Theatre flytower. However, here Robins only gives us musical vignette after musical vignette and the result is a variety show without variety. Flyboy is a sideshow act, a genus that needs company. Lacking it, Flyboy quickly becomes an irritant.

What Flyboy does have is an effortless pathos. He seems to us an unfortunate outcast in an ordinary world. But really we know very little of that world. We assume it to be familiar, given that its architecture and municipal amenities resemble our own. In his school uniform – an outfit we immediately associate with fitting in and falling out of the crowd – Flyboy seems at a permanent disadvantage.

Every miniature adventure that Flyboy winds up on – be it a trip to the Zoo or hauling a planet across the solar system – is, therefore, a small act of spirited defiance. He carries on in spite of his lot; the plucky little mutant in a human world. His accomplices are not people, but animals. It is with them that he associates himself.

But, as I say, all this is based on assumption. The only other occupant of Flyboy’s world that we encounter is Mothboy, a schoolboy in a similar position. For all we know, Flyboy and Mothboy could be perfectly normal because Robins doesn’t show us the norm. He leaves it to our anthropomorphic assumptions. A world that looks like ours, we extrapolate, must be a peopled world.

Nonetheless, the charm of Robins’ work is undeniable, even if there is a tendency to drift towards the twee. Certainly, he overplays the scuffed performance aesthetic of mangled manipulation and apologises far too readily from his piano. All of which makes the National’s Beauty and the Beast (for which he has supplied the spiky, crisp and delicate shadow-puppetry) a better showcase for Robins’ obvious talent.

Photograph: Jane Hobson

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