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Review: Black Box at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC

Review by Sarah Skubala

Black Box, a new musical by the award-winning Brisbane writer-composer Paul Hodge, has made its world premiere at QPAC, and tells the story of David Warren, the Australian inventor of the black box flight recorder. Hodge was inspired to write the musical when he came across an article about the 20 greatest inventions Australia has given the world, with the black box sitting at number one.


Directed by David Berthold, Black Box is a musical that is as innovative as its subject matter, being the first of its kind to use binaural technology to tell the story. Every audience member wears headphones and there are only two actors on the stage. With in-ear monitors, they sing live, interacting with pre-recorded voices and instrumentation which is all delivered through the headphones in stereo sound, designed by Daniel Herten.


The set design, by Isabel Hudson, was transportive and took us back to the 1950s with the use of heavy brown wood panelling dominating the walls and floors. Two sound booths were placed either side of the stage and in the centre was a table and chairs which doubled for an office and a home. An effective diamond-shaped strip of lighting on the floor helped to frame the action and provided a dynamic touch of technology.


Projections on the back screen by video designer Mic Gruchy completed the transportation through time and place and included world maps, a London tube map, and newspaper headlines. The story starts in 2010 in a hospital bed where an aging David Warren has just had a car crash. His life flashes before him and we are taken back to 1929 to a mission station on Groote Eylandt where David is just 4 years old. It then swiftly moves down to Launceston where David attended boarding school. It is there we learn that his father, a reverend, travelled a lot for work, and it was on such a trip that he was tragically killed in one of Australia’s first air disasters aboard the Miss Hobart travelling over the Bass Strait in 1934, when David was just 8 years old.


This event was the catalyst for David’s life’s work as a scientist, which saw him gain a PhD and build a prototype of a device that could record both the audio and flight instruments to help explain and prevent further air disasters.


David’s journey to success wasn’t smooth and the musical takes us through all the ups and downs of his personal and professional life. Michael Cormick plays the lead role, and he is cast and costumed perfectly, reflecting a mid-20th-century change maker. Cormick has a wonderful tone and timbre as a male tenor singer, and his role is incredibly demanding. He doesn’t leave the stage across the two, one-hour acts, and his interactions with characters who only ‘appear’ on the stage vocally are believable and impressive.  


Providing the heart of the piece is Helen Dallimore who plays his wife, Ruth Warren. Her journey is heartbreaking, and we watch a promising young teaching student put her plans on hold to become a wife and mother of four, parenting mostly solo and spiralling into post-natal depression. It is only when she is at crisis point that she reaches out to David for help. Dallimore experienced some technical challenges that compromised her vocal performance, particularly in the duet moments where harmonies were not expertly achieved. This was perhaps one of the unfortunate downsides of singing to a pre-recorded score, delivered through in-ear monitors where foldback issues can occur, and key signature matching can be a challenge.


Memorable audio performances from the supporting cast included Bernard Curry as David’s colleague, Laurie Coombes, and Bryan Probets as David’s father.


Some of the catchiest songs included the duet ‘Show and Tell,’ which had a swing, big band and jazz influence, ‘Unofficially,’ a cheeky nod to getting around company protocol, and one of the closing power ballads, ‘Black Box.’ There was also a notable cameo from Dami Im in the number, ‘A New Era.’


The final moments were particularly moving as the audience was introduced to the real man, David Warren, courtesy of clips projected onto the back screen. Pertinent quotes from David that inspired the songs were shared, including ‘Prove the bastards wrong,’ ‘One side of my mind,’ and ‘Show and tell.’ Dallimore and Cormick stood either side of the screen and directly addressed the audience. We learned that David was awarded the Order of Australia in 2002 and had a QANTAS Airbus A380 named after him in 2008. It was a powerful and emotional closing scene and brought tears to my eyes.


Black Box has a limited season until 19th May, and fans of new musicals, innovative storytelling and Australian aviation history should not miss it.

Image Supplied


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