Virginia is a product of Middle England. Fresh out of fragrant Buckinghamshire, she's a frustrated and failed ‘twenty something’ artist doing the next best thing as a Fine Arts Specialist working at an auction house in Bond Street. Five minutes into the play, we find her discoursing on Francis Bacon’s formal three studies for Figures at the base of a crucifixion.
She’s erudite, buttoned-down, stilted and too cerebral by half. Her boss chides her post-discourse for her antiseptic appreciation of Bacon’s work as betraying ‘too much head and not enough belly’, nothing visceral in Virginia. He goes on to question the point of any art ‘if you don’t take it personally, if you don’t want to live by it and die for it, you have to’.
This criticism acts as an epiphany for Virginia – it ‘hits her for six’ and she certainly takes this lesson to heart. It’s not long before she's off on a journey of self-discovery which will take her (and us, of course) to Argentina and then back again across the Atlantic to North London via the family home in Bucks, before, finally, at the end of a charming two-hour play returning us again to Buenos Aires.
Somewhat chastened but mostly invigorated by new vistas, geographical and emotional, manifested in Argentina and in the tango, its signature dance, we have a nervously liberated Virginia, contemplating the excitement of an uncertain future. ‘There’s Antartica, a whole new continent, my thirties and my forties and my fifties waiting for me – the whole of the rest of my life.’
Olivier award-nominated Summer Strallen captures the transformative core of the piece splendidly as she shifts from someone weighed down and ‘speaking in quotations always too much within her own head but never in her own voice’ to someone who discards social expectation and middle-class circumstance and begins to fly like a bird. Inspired by her Jewish grandfather’s flight from Nazi Germany, and reinvigorated by a close call with thyroid cancer, which threatens her chances of ever having children, Virginia’s sense of the potential of life heightens as her life choices become increasingly stark, she either seizes the day (à la Shirley Valentine) or life will fashion her a pretty predictable and prescribed future.
Dull, domestic marriage to a doltish pharmaceutical man and 40 years of comfortable mediocrity advancing up and down the suburban line as emotional dessication sets in.
The tale is entertaining and provides a charming observational piece on the choices, small epiphanies and quiet despair which are perhaps lurking at the edges of most of our lives.
But what really transforms Flying Into Daylight into a must-watch play is the core element that transforms Virginia. What takes her to Buenos Aires and elevates the play into a feel-good force is the tango and its ability to infuse and energise Virginia with a life-force for the very first time.
It all starts in London, after a chance conversation with a work colleague as Virginia goes along to a milonga (a place where tango is danced) and then her world is suddenly and irreversibly changed.
Overnight, passion replaces habit, ordinary life is suddenly monochrome, as tango takes over – ‘tango which takes you to the essential of something, tango the dance of desire, of heart-beating desire and complex technique.' And tango really is the hero of the piece, seducing, arresting, transforming and finally, vindicating Virginia’s new life as she re-invents herself and discovers redemption through her adoption of her new life and art.
The choreography is vivid and electric. A dance of seduction, tango offers an exotic contrast to the proverbial English rose, and Buenos Aires comes alive on a Tyneside stage. And while Summer Strallen convinces us she is transformed, her co-star, Jos Vantyler, achieves a tour-de-force as he assumes – if I counted accurately – 17 different characters throughout the piece. Most of necessity, caricatured cameos, but two major roles performed in counterpoint and displaying a range of gentle sensitivity, requisite comic lightness and when needed, very convincing physicality – most notably as an amoral, macho tango teacher, cynical and inspirational in the same body-movement and then in total contrast, the aforementioned Audi-driving, nondescript fiancé Phil who craves domesticity, a much-anticipated wedding to Virginia and a much-coveted promotion into pharmaceutical sale middle-management.
Vantyler seduces, insinuates and tangoes with playfulness, and personifies the allure and magnetism of the tango which lies at the heart of the play. The play and its performance lives and dies very much on the performance of the two protagonists and they ultimately succeed in persuading us of the emotional and primeval appeal of all things tango.
Even as an avowed non-participant in dance over a series of decades, I started to believe in the joy, vibrancy and redemption which the tango can deliver to our heroine. But most importantly, the play and its real hero, the tango, are life-affirming. 'When you dance tango with someone you know them,’ but ‘if you dance another other dance you know only about them.’ And the audience believed too. Throughout, musical accompaniment is provided specially composed for the show and performed on stage by Julian Rowlands, one of Europe’s leading tango musicians.
Flying Into Daylight then is ultimately a life-enhancing testament to the resilience of the human spirit and its unending ability to transcend and transform what can often look like a futile condition, and in the process take advantage of new and unexpected possibilities.
Virginia states at one point that ’any life is made up of a single moment, the moment in which you find out once and for all, who you are.’ And as Virginia thrillingly discovers herself, a highly-appreciative live theatre audience danced along with her and joined in with her exhilarating and ultimately transformative journey.