by Laura Kressly
James Rowland’s Songs of Friendship trilogy focuses on the equally hilarious and moving antics he got up to with his best mates Tom, Sarah and Sarah’s partner Emma over the years. These include stealing a friend’s remains and giving him a Viking funeral, and donating sperm to Sarah and Emma. This show is situated outside of that group of friends. Instead, it focuses on another mate who is far less conventional. Though Rowland’s work here is not as neat or as focused as his previous shows, his seemingly truthful delivery and comic timing are as engaging as ever.
This show recalls his childhood and early teen years, when he was often poorly and stuck at home. His mum, one day desperate for a babysitter to look after James, arranges for him to stay with the elderly woman who lives in the ramshackle house at the end of his road. Rumoured to be a witch, James was terrified every Wednesday afternoon for months as he sat unmoving in Anne’s front room watching telly. A hilariously unexpected incident tears down the wall between them and they become fast friends. The emotional journeys of both characters are exquisitely detailed from start to finish.
Rowland simply narrates the story but regularly engages with the audience and follows the odd tangent. Some of these side notes are a little distracting, but he otherwise effectively builds momentum towards the key point in Anne and James’ friendship where the young teenager decides he has a solution to her loneliness. Music indicates transitions, climaxes and helps signpost time passing, and Rowland is a superb storyteller who artfully plumbs his own life for source material.
The end effect, like his previous shows, is the desperate, aching desire for the story to be true. Rowland paints Anne and his young self in such vivid colours, and drenches the story with pathos and humanity that the bizarre, central event seems completely tenable. The idea that it actually happened is a delightful one to entertain, but what’s more important is that this unusual friendship is the sort of thing that everyone deserves to experience.
Learning to Fly runs through 28 August.
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