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Watermill Theatre

Box office

01635 46044. www.watermill.org.uk

The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury, RG20 8AE. A map is here. A seating plan is here.
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Reviews of Lone Flyer

27th 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").

Reviews in the Archive

Bloodshot (September 2020)
Camelot (August 2020)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (July 2020)
The Wicker Husband (March 2020)
The Prince and the Pauper (November 2019)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (February 2020)
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain (February 2020)
Assassins (September 2019)
Kiss Me, Kate (July 2019)
Our Church (June 2019)
The Importance of Being Earnest (May 2019)
Amélie (April 2019)
Macbeth (February 2019)
Robin Hood (November 2018)
Murder For Two (January 2019)
Jane Eyre (October 2018)
Trial by Laughter (September 2018)
Sweet Charity (July 2018)
Jerusalem (June 2018)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (May 2018)
Burke and Hare (April 2018 and on tour)
Digging For Victory Senior Youth Theatre (March 2018)
The Rivals (March 2018)
Teddy (January 2018)
The Borrowers (November 2017)
Under Milk Wood (October 2017)
Loot (September 2017)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (September 2017 and on tour)
A Little Night Music (July 2017)
All at Sea! (July 2017)
The Miller's Child (July 2017)
Nesting (July 2017 and on tour)
House and Garden (May 2017)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of Maskerade (May 2016)
Twelfth Night (April 2017)
Faust x2 (March 2017)
Murder For Two (January 2017)
Sleeping Beauty (November 2016)
Frankenstein (October 2016)
The Wipers Times (September 2016)
Crazy For You (July 2016)
Watership Down (June 2016)
Untold Stories (May 2016)
See Box Theatre Company for a review of The Sea (April 2016)
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain (April 2016 and on tour)
Romeo and Juliet (February 2016)
Tell Me on a Sunday (January 2016)
Alice in Wonderland (November 2015)
Gormenghast (November 2015) - see the Youth page
The Ladykillers (September 2015)
Oliver! (July 2015)
A Little History of the World (July 2015 and on tour)
Between the Lines (July 2015)
The Deep Blue Sea (June 2015)
Far From the Madding Crowd (April 2015)
Tuxedo Junction (March 2015)
The Secret Adversary (February 2015)
Peter Pan (November 2014)
But First This (October 2014)
Twelfth Night (November 2014) - see the Youth page
Journey's End (September 2014)
Calamity Jane (July 2014)
The Boxford Masques - Joe Soap's Masquerade (July 2014)
Hardboiled - the Fall of Sam Shadow (July 2014)
A Bunch of Amateurs (May 2014)
See Box Theatre Company for a review of The Canterbury Tales (May 2014)
Sense and Sensibility (April 2014)
Life Lessons (March 2014)
All My Sons (February 2014)
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (January 2014)
Pinocchio (November 2013)
Sherlock's Last Case (September 2013)
Romeo+Juliet (September 2013 and on tour)
The Witches of Eastwick (July 2013)
Laurel & Hardy (June 2013)
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (May 2013)
The Miser (April 2013)
David Copperfield (March 2013)
Sleuth (February 2013)
Arabian Nights (November 2012)
The Tempest (September 2012)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (August 2012)
Boxford Masques (July 2012)
Ben Hur (June 2012)
Of Mice and Men (May 2012)
Love on the Tracks (April 2012 and on tour)
Henry V and The Winter's Tale (April 2012)
Lettice and Lovage (February 2012)
The Wind in the Willows (November 2011)
Some Like It Hotter (November 2011 and on tour)
Great Expectations (September 2011)
Radio Times (August 2011)
The Marriage of Figaro (July 2011)
Moonlight and Magnolias (May 2011)
Richard III and The Comedy of Errors (April 2011)
The Clodly Light Opera and Drama Society (March 2011)
Relatively Speaking (February 2011)
Treasure Island (November 2010)
Single Spies (September 2010)
Copacabana (July 2010)
Daisy Pulls It Off (June 2010)
Brontë (April 2010)
Raising Voices (March 2010)
Confused Love (March 2010)
Heroes (February 2010)
James and the Giant Peach (November 2009)
Educating Rita (October 2009)
Spend Spend Spend! (July 2009 and September 2010)
Blithe Spirit (May 2009)
Bubbles (April to May and September to October 2009)
A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice (March 2009)
Life X 3 (January 2009)
Matilda and Duffy's Stupendous Space Adventure (November 2008)
The Sirens' Call (November 2008)
Our Country's Good (September 2008)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of The Recruiting Officer (October 2008)
Sunset Boulevard (July 2008)
Boxford Masques - Knight and Day (July 2008)
Black Comedy and The Bowmans (May 2008)
London Assurance (April 2008)
Micky Salberg's Crystal Ballroom Dance Band (April 2008 and on tour)
Great West Road (March 2008)
Merrily We Roll Along (March 2008)
Honk! (November 2007)
Rope (September 2007)
Martin Guerre (July 2007)
Twelfth Night (June 2007)
The Story of a Great Lady (April and September 2007, and on tour)
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (April 2007)
For Services Rendered (March 2007)
Plunder (January 2007)
The Snow Queen (November 2006)
Peter Pan in Scarlet (October 2006)
The Taming of the Shrew (September 2006 and on tour in 2007)
Hot Mikado (July 2006 and September 2009)
Boxford Masques: The Crowning of the Year (July 2006)
Hobson's Choice (May 2006)
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (April 2006)
Tartuffe (February 2006)
The Jungle Book (November 2005)
The Gilded Lilies (October 2005)
Copenhagen (September 2005)
The Garden of Llangoed (September 2005 and September 2006)
Thieves' Carnival (July 2005)
The Shed (July 2005)
Mack and Mabel (May 2005)
The Odyssey (May 2005)
Broken Glass (April 2005)
The Winter's Tale (January 2005)
Arabian Nights (December 2004)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of Whose Life is it Anyway? (November 2004)
Multiplex (November 2004)
Neville's Island (September 2004)
The Comedian (September 2004 and March 2005)
Raising Voices Again (September 2004)
Pinafore Swing (July 2004)
The Venetian Twins (May 2004)
The Gentleman from Olmedo (April 2004)
Mr & Mrs Schultz (March 2004 and on tour)
Sweeney Todd (February 2004)
The Emperor and the Nightingale (November 2003)
See Newbury Dramatic Society for a review of An Ideal Husband (November 2003)
A Star Danced (September 2003)
The Fourth Fold (September 2003)
The Last Days of the Empire (July 2003)
Accelerate (July 2003)
Dreams from a Summer House (May 2003)
The Triumph of Love (April 2003)
Gigolo (March 2003)
Raising Voices (March 2003)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (February 2003)
The Firebird (November 2002)
Ten Cents a Dance (September 2002)
Dancing at Lughnasa (July 2002)
Love in a Maze (June 2002)
Fiddler on the Roof (April 2002)
I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls (March 2002 and March 2006)
Only a Matter of Time (February 2002)
Cinderella and the Enchanted Slipper (November 2001)
Piaf (October 2001)
The Merchant of Venice (October 2001)
Witch (September 2001)
The Clandestine Marriage (August 2001)
The Importance of Being Earnest (May 2001)
Gondoliers (March 2001)
Rose Rage (February 2001)
Carmen (July 2000)