Charlie Victor Romeo is the code for the Cockpit Voice Recorder, better known as the ‘black box’ carried on board every aircraft, which records all radio and spoken voice for the duration of the flight.
It is also the name of a show by this group of American actors, who dramatise real-life black-box recordings from air disasters from the 80s and 90s.
The set is impressive, consisting of a large nose cone behind which an aircraft’s cockpit is set up, complete with security door leading to the rest of the plane. The cockpit is empty as we take our seats, and ambient music and radio chatter plays over the PA, creating an atmosphere of expectation and drama.
Two of the female cast members then give us a safety briefing, and the first vignette begins. A slide projection gives us information on the flight number, date and location, together with some indication of what impending disaster is about to unfold, such as ‘incorrect altimeter setting’. Then, two actors in civilian pilot uniform sit in the cockpit and then begin to repeat one of the black box recordings verbatim.
There are several things which impress and affect about this production. First, of course, is the fact you are listening to a dramatisation of something which actually happened, and are listening to the actual words spoken by the cockpit crew and air-traffic control staff at the time.
After the first, tense episode is over, the slide returns and indicates ‘no casualties’, but this is an atypical example of what is yet to come.
Each subsequent dramatisation, in which the eight-strong cast switch places and roles, is of a real disaster. What moves most here is the fact you are hearing people’s final words – that, and the utmost professionalism and determination of the pilots and crew to avoid catastrophe. Each vignette ends with brutal abruptness and darkness, before the slide returns to, more often than not, inform us that there were ‘no survivors’. This is relentlessly powerful stuff, and it comes as something of a relief when the show is over.
Special mention must go to the sound production here, as it is superb. Engine noise, instrument warning signals, explosions – all of these create a cacophony of noise, adding to the confusion and panic of each episode’s last few moments. Acting is equally impressive throughout, and the straight, verbatim telling of the recordings is a concept that works well as a testament to those who lost lives, without being exploitative.
Ultimately, although shaken and beaten by the production, you leave it with a lasting impression not only of the frailty of life, but of also of its compassion, determination and bravery.