Theatre review: Higher Faster Louder, Bulmba-ja Arts Centre, Queensland

Take to the skies in a play based on the experiences of one of the world’s first female commercial pilots.

Fasten your seatbelts as Marilyn Marsh-Booth’s story takes off – from her working class English background to life as an aeronautical trailblazer, there’s plenty of turbulence in that 27-year journey, which has now been brought to the stage as Higher Faster Louder

Bulmba-ja Arts Centre foyer is a sight to behold as JUTE Theatre has transformed the entrance into an interactive set-up with airline seats. This quirky photo op for patrons, paired with ushers wearing 1970s air hostess uniforms, is topped off with the complimentary glass of champagne and nibbles for first-class authenticity.

Patrons are transported through the theatre to an aircraft hangar, where we are confronted by the high jinks of four pilots preparing for work. Though entertaining, this sequence may be a touch too prolonged.

Director Matt Scholten has instilled a measure of fun in his actors, while guiding them along a risky airborne journey. It was important for this performance to strongly reinforce the female perspective; however, it was a masterstroke by JUTE theatre to bring in a male director, to provide a sprinkling of male nuance to add balance to the piece.  

The performers are led by our protagonist, the young Marsh-Booth played by Julia Allman. The audience witnesses the pilot’s life throughout her developmental years, adolescence and into adulthood. Her headstrong nature helps the fledging flier reach for the seemingly impossible in a world that wants to keep the gender status quo uneven. As the story unfolds, the audience is gradually let in to the pressures of being a young woman fighting for more than her dreams. 

Suellen Maunder plays a mysterious, omnipotent narrator, who floats among the cast, giving explanations when required to deepen our access to Marsh-Booth’s feelings in particular moments. Who is she? The answer is not clear until the play’s concluding scene.  

Kyle Walmsley pushes the limits of his professional acting range by playing all the male characters in Higher Faster Louder – from a caring dad, to a sleazy pilot, to Marsh-Booth’s lover, plus a few other characters. His ubiquitous visage perfectly encapsulates the degree of male privilege from the time when the play is set. Elizabeth Slattery plays a variety of female characters, including Charlotte the hostess, who provides a large serving of comic relief. Her enabling of the patriarchy is the antithesis of Marsh-Booth’s own trailblazer mentality. 

Peter Keavy is the designer in charge of props, set and costume. The set consists of a moveable skeletal framework of a fuselage, allowing the audience to see through inside. The absence of blind spots in this cross-section view keeps everyone enthralled. The ensemble are dressed in khaki coveralls as a base costume, giving the actors a uniform look. But the addition of an accessory to the outfit transforms each actor into another character or transports them to a different time, a decision that makes good use of the “less is more” strategy.

The projections from designer Russell Milledge are a particularly successful example of adding an extra layer to the performance space. By giving context to each scene, stylised images with an aged feel make the audience feel like we are in the 1960s. Such projections become essential in some later scenes, raising the tension to good effect.

Production manager Sam Gibb is also the lighting designer for this play and offers an understated lighting plot, which augments the work of the other designers rather than overshadows them. Different hues are expertly used to convey the emotions of the characters. Will Hughes contributes a visceral soundscape design for the performers to coax even more from their characters: from the noise of aeroplane engines to the tense recurrent alarms.

Flying high and breaking barriers is not new for JUTE Theatre and this production is no different.

Read: Exhibition review: Jemima Wyman, Sullivan+Strumpf, Melbourne

Marsh-Booth says she was ‘blown away by the speed and power’ of a commercial jet whenever she stepped into the cockpit mid-flight. Both cast and creatives have made a courageous attempt to portray her awe and wonder, her career heights and disappointments – the stuff from which all our dreams are made. 

Higher Faster Louder
Bulmba-ja Arts Centre, Cairns, Queensland

Playwright: Marilyn Marsh-Booth 
Director: Matt Scholten
Production Manager and Lighting Designer: Sam Gibb

Dramaturg: Kathryn Ash
Stage Manager: Esther Elder
Projection Designer: Russell Milledge

Set, Props and Costume Designer: Peter Keavy
Composer and Sound Designer: Will Hughes 
Cast: Julia Allman, Suellen Maunder, Elizabeth Slattery, Kyle Walmsley                                 

 Higher Faster Louder will be performed until 2 September 2023.

Douglas Robins is an Arts worker in far north Queensland, is fanatical about theatre and believes theatre should always be inclusive to all. He completed a B.A. in Theatre and English at James Cook University, Cairns in 2011. An author of short plays and theatre reviews, an actor, director and president of community theatre company Tropical Arts Inc.