Based on the true story of David Warren, inventor of the flight recorder that is now standard in every airplane around the world, Black Box premiered to a standing ovation at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre.

This niche and novel new musical was written and composed by Paul Hodge and this world premiere season is directed by David Berthold.

Michael Cormick in Black Box. Photo supplied

Inspired by the loss of his father in a plane crash when he was a child, David Warren is determined to make a career of studying planes to improve their safety. As the jet age dawns, while working for the Australian Aeronautical Research Laboratories, he conceives a device that could record the final moments of a flight before a crash.

Warren’s outspoken nature and hard-headedness don’t win him many friends, but with the encouragement of his boss, Lawrence Coombes, he continues to work on the recorder despite layers of bureaucracy and repeated rejections.

As we all know now, Warren’s invention was eventually mandated worldwide, but Black Box also shows his single-minded focus taking him away from his faith and his family, as his wife struggles to raise four children while experiencing post-partum depression.

The novelty of Black Box is its use of binaural audio, with audience members given a pair of headphones to wear for the duration of the performance. Binaural recording uses two microphones, arranged with the intention of creating a three-dimensional sound experience for the listener.

This format has been used in theatre in recent years (for example, in Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Blindness), but Black Box asserts itself as the first musical to use it. A looping, humorous recording allows audience members to test the audio before the show began, and technical support is available if required.

There were no major technical difficulties on opening night, apart from a theatre-wide drop-out of the audio feed that lasted only a few seconds. Overall, the audio experience is seamless, although the sounds of onstage movement and audience applause filtered through the headphones are initially disconcerting. Despite the proximity of the actors’ voice in your ears, the headphones create more distance between audience and performers.

The use of binaural audio ties in thematically to the nature of human hearing and understanding, as well as the two streams of information collected by Warren’s invention – the pilot voice recording, and the instrument readings.

The play also explores themes of memory and grief, and touches on historical perceptions of Australian inventions and industry as being inferior. Some of the show’s humour was crass in a way that felt out of place, especially a scene that used airplane jargon as sexual innuendo.

Michael Cormick in Black Box. Photo supplied

Michael Cormick gives a five-star performance as Warren, filling the stage with his intense focus, marvellous voice, and passionate energy.

Helen Dallimore is warm and emotive as Warren’s wife, Ruth. They speak and sing live on stage, in response to and in harmony with the music and other voices through the headphones. Cormick’s voice is also looped in several songs. Dallimore is clearly a strong and skilful singer but was off-key on several occasions, suggesting there may have been issues with her in-ear monitoring.

Pre-recorded voices by Freddie Hagley, Bryan Probets, Bernard Curry, Hugh Parker, Liz Buchanan and Ethan Lwin round out the cast of secondary characters. The music is also pre-recorded, with musical direction by Nick House, and sound design by Daniel Herten adds to the settings with ambient noise.

Despite the strong promotion of Dami Im’s involvement, her vocals for the song A New Era play for only a few seconds in one scene.

Isabel Hudson’s set design includes panel cutouts that suggest sound waves, with a long, rectangular screen set into the back wall. Paper planes soar onto the stage, but otherwise the staging is contained to a table and two chairs.

Michael Cormick and Helen Dallimore in Black Box. Photo supplied

Video design by Mic Gruchy states years and locations, and lighting design by Ben Hughes creates split-second transitions between settings. Gruchy’s design also supplements set pieces and includes a curious mix of realistic scenery, floating images, and abstract visualisations.

Black Box presents an interesting slice of Australian history in an innovative musical format and is exuberantly performed, but ultimately the novelty does not balance out the niche appeal of its subject matter.

Black Box plays at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, until 19 May.

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