Theatre review: Miss Jean Batten, Basement Theatre

By Janet McAllister

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Light, bright production presents girlish side of elusive aviator.
Alex Ellis as Miss Jean Batten. Image / supplied
Alex Ellis as Miss Jean Batten. Image / supplied

The "Garbo of the Skies" legend of Jean Batten is both fascinating and powerful: cool, glamorous and supposedly manipulative, the great aviator cannibalised her admirers' planes to patch up her own.

This Flaxworks production mentions the boyfriends but ignores the image, and instead presents a girlish Jean, enthusiastic and sweet. Stuck in Sydney in 1936 on her way to being the first person - male or female - to fly from England to New Zealand, she sketches out her adventures in flying and fame.

As Jean, Alex Ellis is playful and graceful - peeling off a flying jacket to reveal a remarkable pitch-perfect Elizabeth Whiting confection - but little is shown of the steely resolve that one might expect in a woman who performs daring feats in a man's world. The revisionist personality is more generic than convincing but it does suggest alternative possibilities.

Poignantly, playwright Phil Ormsby has Jean say "just when I think I'm about to spend my life alone, I meet someone". The play keeps us in the dark, but that "someone", Beverley Shepherd, died only a few months after Batten's New Zealand triumph. And Batten spent her life if not alone, then certainly with no long-term partners.

More detail would keep up interest and there are small factual errors; Batten's hometown is said to be Auckland, not Rotorua. But we're transported to the aerodrome by Thomas Press's sound effects and the real radio announcement of her landing at Mangere is a treat.

John Parker's set is dominated by a wooden ladder pretending to be a plane; it occasionally gets in the way as Jean moves upstage to retrieve props but it makes a great climbing frame. The conceit of props being wrapped in maps - telegrams, newspapers, flowers, wine bottles - works well. This is a light, bright production; the complex Miss Batten remains elusive.

What: Miss Jean Batten.
Where and when: Basement Theatre, Greys Ave; to April 9.

- NZ Herald

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