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Watermill Theatre - Lone Flyer

21st October to 3rd November 2020

Review from Newbury Theatre.

By any standards Amy Johnson was a remarkable woman. Driven, determined, resourceful, courageous, she showed what women were capable of in an era when the aspirations for many were menial jobs or housewives.

Author Ade Morris’s story, which he wrote and directed at the Watermill in 2001, flits backwards and forwards through the strands of Amy’s life in a way which is at first confusing but becomes a very clever method of developing the story with pace and zip which could have been lacking in a linear telling.

With just two actors, this is an ideal play for social distancing, and it’s cleverly choreographed in an unobtrusive way.

The story covers Amy’s life from her youth to her death. Struggling to swim in the cold North Sea, she looks up and dreams of flying. Zeppelins overhead during the war help to crystallise her dreams and give her the impetus to succeed in a man’s world. She learns to be a pilot and engineer, leading to her famous single-handed flight to Australia in 1930. On the way, we meet her lovers and supporters.

Hannah Edwards is perfect as Amy. Her gamine appearance fits well with the character and she has great stage presence. Her enthusiasm, her depression, her anger, her affection, her fear – all of these she conveys skilfully and she is mesmerising throughout.

Benedict Salter is everyone else, and wow! With minimal changes of clothing, his body language and accents are skilfully melded into the very different characters including her father, the annoyingly unemotional Teutonic Franz who is her first lover, Amy’s husband Jim, her supportive technical chap and her posh flatmate Winifred. Oh, and he plays the cello – mostly mournful notes.

Designer Isobel Nicholson provided a simple set with many suitcases and a trolley, made good use of as Amy’s plane. Director Lucy Betts brings the multitude of characters and Morris’s script together in a production that is gripping, informative and completely absorbing. A little too long? Maybe, but what a life to be told.

The Watermill has come up with two excellent productions as their first since the lockdown. A Christmas Carol is next – sounds like a social distancing challenge!

PAUL SHAVE

Review from the Guardian.

This powerful, affecting drama ranges over the pioneering aviator’s adventurous career and her final terrible moments

Four stars
Amy Johnson is, in many ways, still the epitome of the romantic female adventurer. Finding international fame as the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930, she lived fast and died young, breaking a host of records before crashing to her death at the age of 37.

In this revival of Ade Morris’s 2001 play about her life, we glimpse the woman behind the celebrity pilot and aviation engineer, as frustrated by social convention as she was determined to embrace adventure. We meet Johnson in her dying moments and her life flashes before our eyes over the course of the play. We flit back and forth from that frantic, final flight to her early years in Hull and at Sheffield University, then to finding her passion for flying and meeting the loves of her life.

Lucy Betts’s direction navigates a socially-distanced stage so cleverly that we barely notice the lack of touch between its two actors. In flying jacket and cap, Hannah Edwards, as Johnson, is spirited, sparky and full of yearning for a remarkable life. She steers between steeliness and vulnerability in the narration of her story, while Benedict Salter switches with virtuosity between several roles, including Johnson’s gentle father, her remote first lover, Franz, and her husband and fellow pilot, Jim Mollison.

It is Johnson’s poetic subjectivity that leads the storytelling and the script zings with colour as she speaks of a near-drowning in a “huge fist of sea” – the freezing waves were “a million needles of icy hot”. She refers to wartime zeppelins as “flying badgers” and to a teacher who has “a face like cold suet pudding”.

A revolving trolley is the central prop and mostly functions as Johnson’s Gipsy Moth plane. Jamie Kubisch-Wiles and Thom Townsend’s sound design, together with Harry Armytage’s lighting, signal scene changes without any other big shifts in the set. The sea is suggested by undulating white light; a cinema hall is evoked with flickering illumination and piano music; and the sound of a school bell or an aeroplane engine’s thrum instantly create an atmosphere, alongside the eloquence of Morris’s script.

It is clear that Johnson is a maverick, pushing against norms to be the woman she wants to be rather than the “teacher or nurse” she is expected to become. She speaks of her fear of being stuck in an unfulfilled life which, it is hinted, led her sister to kill herself. Travelling through a series of dull jobs, from a typing pool to the lingerie department of Peter Jones and a law firm, she finally trades it in for a “more precarious existence at Stag Lane aerodrome” in London.

Her dilemmas feel strangely – even sadly – contemporary as she reflects on marriage, motherhood and personal freedom. “Love makes me dependent and I hate that it saps all my adventure,” she says, though she craves it, too.

The play also, obliquely, shows how the world judges female heroism. She is described as a “blonde” and as a “daughter” by the press, even after her extraordinary accomplishments as a pilot. At the height of her fame, she seems to be caught in an uncomfortable and intrusive alliance with the press. “Fame is like battery acid – use it, don’t drink it,” she says, almost as a warning to herself.

This aspect, while not heavily investigated, again feels contemporary and reminiscent of the way in which adventuring women such as the late Alison Hargreaves – the first female mountaineer to scale Everest alone and without supplementary oxygen – have been judged.

Discordant cello music signals a return to her final moments in the air. It sounds slightly shrill by the end and we return to this scene too often, but the play holds its power right until that final crash, and all the hope of a magnificent, adventuring life in it.

ARIFA AKBAR

Review from The Times.

One extraordinary heroine

Three stars
Aerodynamically speaking, it’s slightly lopsided. Ade Morris’s two-hander about aviation’s answer to Gracie Fields packs in a lot of information about an extraordinary life, but leaves you feeling that you’re missing some of the essentials.

Never mind. Hannah Edwards and Benedict Salter are such engaging company that the piecemeal drama — first staged at the Watermill in 2001 — stays airborne. Lucy Betts directs with panache, and Isobel Nicholson’s spartan set, in which a humble trolley takes the place of Johnson’s plane, allows your imagination to roam across the wide blue yonder.

As with Amelia Earhart, Johnson’s passion for flying led to a premature death: she was 37 when she perished in the Thames Estuary during a routine Air Transport Auxiliary flight in 1941. Morris’s narrative switches back and forth from her rise to fame and her final hours: lost in fog, she struggles to keep panic at bay.

As Amy, Edwards is a winning mixture of rosy-cheeked guilelessness and raw ambition; shrugging off setbacks, she establishes herself in a man’s world. Salter is kept extremely busy with a multitude of supporting roles. He handles them all with aplomb and, when required, nimble comic timing. He also adds some soulful cello playing (the Watermill has a well-earned reputation for its use of actor-musicians) and generates ominous droning engine noises in the scenes involving Amy’s final sortie. He even convinces as Johnson’s tennis racquet-wielding friend, Winifred, who might have stepped straight out of the pages of an Angela Brazil novel.

Elsewhere, while maintaining social distancing, Edwards and Salter manage to dance and have a romantic, Now, Voyager-style puff on a cigarette. It’s just puzzling that the script allots so much precious time to Johnson’s Swiss lover, Franz, a diffident businessman who is, to be honest, dead weight. In contrast, Jim Mollison, the pilot who married Johnson and shared some of her adventures — they were known as “the flying sweethearts” — seems oddly underwritten.

Morris crams one incident and anecdote on top of another. After a promising start, the story begins to flag. Still, Harry Armytage’s lighting is atmospheric; so is the period music. You hold your breath as our heroine faces her final challenge. Part of you still hopes she’ll pull through.

CLIVE DAVIS

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Intrepid Amy… what a gal!

Revival of Ade Morris's play about the remarkable aviator Amy Johnson

Lone Flyer – The Last Flight of Amy Johnson, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until November 21

"zings with energy... a slice of history, beautifully performed by a superb company"

The full review is on Newburytoday at www.newburytoday.co.uk/news/arts---ents/32485/intrepid-amy-what-a-gal.html

ROBIN STRAPP

Review from the Daily Telegraph.

Our imagination is borne up, up and away

It might have worked better as a monologue, but there is still much to enjoy in this drama about the celebrated aviatrix Amy Johnson

Three stars

We’re a nation of lone flyers at the moment – buffeted by treacherous winds, gripping the throttle, gritting teeth, hoping there’s enough fuel to get us through the storm.

The title of Ade Morris’s play is immediately resonant. First seen at the Watermill in 2001, it’s now revived at the intimate Newbury venue amid very different times (with the seating capacity reduced from 200 to 73). Hence the story it tells – of Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia – is like a shot of fortifying whisky. There’s courage and then there’s the remarkable example of a Hull fish-merchant’s daughter who risked life and limb to ascend to a different plane, demanding more for women than safe domesticity or dutiful occupations.

Johnson’s story has been told on film, television and radio. On stage, there’s an inevitable challenge to conjure the miracle of flight – aerial contraptions aren’t quite the ticket, and video can go awry. Lucy Betts’s production takes a solidly earthbound approach – perching Hannah Edwards within a customised metal trolley which her co-performer Benedict Salter applies the odd yank and pull to but doesn’t bust a gut trying to lift. It’s almost bathetic but it’s remarkable what a sound effect of wind, a touch of lighting to evoke swirling cloud and Salter’s handiwork on a cello, creating sounds of lurching and swooping, can do. Our imagination is borne up, up and away.

We first meet the famous aviatrix at the hour of her death, bound for Oxford but lost over the Thames Estuary, into which her plane plummeted, her body never to be recovered. Given that it was 1941, suspicions remain that she was downed by friendly fire, but Morris dwells instead on her personal trajectory and the impact of early-20th-century celebrity, taking us via flashbacks from her formative years to her wing-and-a-prayer bids for glory.

The surviving audio clips suggest a quaint period, almost RP, accent but Edwards gives us a strong Hull lilt, supplying much in the way of northern-lass sunniness and smiles. Some of the chatter sounds a bit Wikipedia-que, and sometimes major points of interest – her journalist sister sticking her head in a gas oven, say – are skated over, when other details – her prolonged, unhappy relationship with a Swiss businessman (who got into potato imports) – could be far more swiftly dispensed with.

Only when she exchanges the silks and satins department of Peter Jones and grind in a solicitors for the smell of engine-oil and the roar of ecstatic crowds, reliving her costly, history-making flight (in a Gypsy Moth she affectionately called “Jason”) does the adrenalin start to flow. The exoticism of her ethereal liberation is well caught; she dices with death in a zero-visibility Turkish gorge, crash-lands amid a parade ground while looking for the Ganges and has to flatten ant-hills in a Timor village before she can take-off.

Keeping his social distance, Salter bustles for Britain in a range of roles – including her decreasingly well-matched Scottish pilot husband Jim Mollison. But we only really need to hear from the heroine herself. The more actors that are employed at the moment the better, but for once here’s a play I’d more happily see in monologue form.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

There are reviews from Theatre Cat (Libby Purves) ("a great evening, atmospheric and a grippingly impressionistic portrait of a remarkable woman" ★★★★), Wokingham Today ("lyrical and fun"), Pocket Size Theatre ("an extraordinary story that is worth telling" ★★★★), The Stage ("uplifting story" ★★★★), The Spy in the Stalls ("The Watermill once again proves it deserves its long held reputation for inventive productions with this pacey and enchanting show" ★★★★), DailyInfo, ("surpasses their usual high standard; it’s one of the best productions I have seen there").