It’s billed as a ‘folk supergroup’, but that soubriquet only tells a fraction of the story. Flit is a group comprising Martin Green (Lau), Becky Unthank, Adam Holmes (The Embers), Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Dominic Aitchison (Mogwai). It’s also a multimedia production directed by Green with brilliantly produced animated interventions from whiterobot (Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson), a stunning set designed by Barney George and Ben Everett’s supremely inventive lighting design. It debuted at the Edinburgh Festival this summer and its credits also include a dramaturg and stylist, Arts Council funding and Opera North co-production – very theatrical.
The story goes that from a visit to his grandmother to gather stories to tell his kids, Green created a folk opera song cycle called Flit in which he muses on notions of journeys taken from and to somewhere called home. Acting as a kind of everyman narrator he recounts something of his own story as well as that of his family, establishing universal credentials with little regard for class, creed or culture. Then, towards the end, he reveals his grandparents came to this country at the age of 12 aboard the kindertransport that saved thousands of Jewish children from the Nazis. The parallel between the calculations made then to decide how many to take and how many to leave and those being made today in relation to refugees shame our so-called civilisation and as the rhythmic din of the soundtrack gets louder and louder Green’s angry roar can only just be heard at its peak.
The discord is carefully measured but no less appropriate. More typical in the 80-odd minutes that precede it are carefully constructed soundscapes that, in combination with the animated projections and brilliant lighting effects, create and then play with moods, themes and feelings. There’s a gentle nostalgia, a bittersweet sense of belonging that pervades throughout and yet not for anything specific. Propelled by the perfectly matched combination vocals of Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes, the songs chase melodies and hunt meaning in the lyrics written by singer songwriters Anais Mitchell, Sandy Wright, Karine Polwart and Aidan Moffat (Arab Strap).
Between them Utley and Green create a rich vein of ambient sound that is augmented by the former’s guitar and the latter’s ingenious accordion, but the material is at its most affecting at its sparsest with Unthank singing solo inside a light cage of laser beams. Quite fabulous. The players are all dressed in brown, the better to blend with the magnificent set, a kind of cave of packing paper that becomes the backdrop for poignant brown paper animated puppetry in which children and old people become birds and fly, fly, fly away to who knows where.
Well received by an attentive if only half full theatre, Flit is a delight-full sensory experience that occupies a vivid emotional space between happy and sad, asks more questions than it answers and challenges expectations of music, theatre and performance. It seems only fitting that such a work about journeys should be so moving.