Flying Into Daylight is described by many as Dirty Dancing for tango. In actual fact, this play is at its strongest when it when it deviates from that formula.
Okay, how’s about this for a story? There’s a young woman who doesn’t know what to do with her life, until the day she discovers tango dancing. It gives her a new purpose to her life, and yet friends and family don’t understand how much this means to her. She meets a free-spirited dance instructor who takes her under his wing. The chemistry between them is clear. Soon they’ll be more than just dance partners … Sounds familiar? Yup, this is pretty much the plot of Dirty Dancing, once you remove the word “tango” from that synopsis. And, classic though this 1980s movie may be, it suffers the curse of many classic movies: a formula so popular it gets imitated to death. I know that re-hashing film plots is a pretty effective way of selling lots of tickets without needing to be that creative, so I will admit I was somewhat sceptical about Live Theatre’s final play of 2014.
Well, hold on a second. There’s more to Flying into Daylight than a copycat of a popular film. This was originally a story by Victoria Fisher, which was adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson, who directed the play along with Live artistic director Max Roberts. The story is done as a two-hander, with Summer Strallen as Virginia, and Jos Vantyler as love interest Marco and everyone else. Also featuring on-stage musician-composer Julian Rowlands and on-stage tango choreographed by Amir Giles. It’s been described by some enthusiasts as the Dirty Dancing of tango – and I don’t think that’s a good description. Because this play, I think, is at its weakest when it’s similar to the plot of the film, and at its strongest when it goes its own way.
So, the story begins when Virginia, bored of her dead-end job in an art salesroom, finds out about tango classes that a work colleague goes to. She gives it a go and falls in love with it instantly, but sadly this enthusiasm is not shared by her family. Most depressingly, fiancé Phil thinks any kind of artistic temperament is an indulgence, and a distraction from more important things (like career ladders and mortgages, that sort of stuff). Even after going to a class with her and seeing how much it means to her, he still makes his indifference clear. Oh dear Phil, schoolboy error. Look Phil, I am in no position to lecture other people on relationships given my own shambolic track record – but even I know you’re better off pretending to be interested, going along to classes with her, and spending as much time as possible being her dance partner. (And should some opportunist toe-rag at the dance class takes a fancy to your missus, it shouldn’t be too hard to nip it in the bud.)
Unfortunately for Phil, no-one gives him this advice, so the next thing we know she’s quit her job, upped sticks, and gone to tango capital Buenos Aires to learn it properly. Virginia arrives in town, is enamoured with the place they call the city of lost women, and signs up for a proper class. And there she meets dance instructor, tango supremo and obvious sleazebag Marco. She grabs his interest and she becomes obsessed with him as the weeks go by. And in a not-terribly-unexpected twist at the end of Act One, she agrees to stay at his place on a flimsy pretence, and they become lovers.
Hmm … So far, I’d say the production gets full marks for tango dancing but zero points for originality. There was a modest deviation from a dirty dancing clone when Virginia reveals she almost died from throat cancer – presumably it was this close call with death that led her to appreciate life all she could – but a traumatic even in a main character’s back-story seems to be pretty much bog-standard issue in new writing theatres these days. Other than that, I might as well have been ticking through a checklist of Dirty Dancing plot points. I was half-expecting the remaining story to consist of: a contest; a dazzling show; her family proudly watching with tears in their eyes; Patrick Swayze lifting Jennifer Grey into to the air; and I’ve … had …. the time of my li-i-ife … Or something like that.
But after the interval, the play suddenly takes on a life of its own. Whilst Dirty Dancing goes from fantasy to fairytale, it this play reality catches up with fantasy. Virginia starts to become aware of the poverty around her, and the way this shapes the city far more than its tango craze. But for her dream romance with Marco, it takes longer before there’s the rude awakening. Starry-eyed Virginia doesn’t realise – or, more likely, chooses not to realise – that he’s done this many times before. There is a heartbreaking scene where Marco takes her to a waterfall, where Virginia expects her and Marco to commit to each other – but no, this is where Marco intends to bring it to an end. I’m afraid, Virginia, this is what all obvious sleazebags do when facing a prospect of commitment.
So the end of the play, instead of being the most predictable bit, turns out to be the strongest bit. Instead of a dazzling dance finale extravaganza, it’s where Virginia picks her life where she left off, and family and fiancé sadly no more understanding than they were before. It’s up to Virginia to find her own ending to the story.
To its credit, Flying Into Daylight has been very popular with audiences, and whilst it was heavily reliant on getting bums on seats thought the spectacle of the on-stage tango dancing, it avoids a formulaic crowd-pleasing plot that could so easily have been the fate of this play – even if you have to wait a while. It’s fair to say it’s not exactly the most daring or cutting edge thing you’ll see at Live, but, hey, this time of year it’s a welcome alternative to the completely formulaic panto season. If you’re expecting Dirty Dancing, watch Dirty Dancing, and if you’re expecting 100% original play this probably isn’t the one for you, but if you take the play for what it is, it’s a nice production to round off Live’s 2014 season.