Monday, 26 October 2020

REVIEW: Lone Flyer at the Watermill, Newbury

The Watermill continues its indoor reopening season with a revival of its 2001 play about the life and death of the amazing Amy Johnson, the first women to fly from Croydon to Darwin Australia in 19 days in May 1930. The venue continues to smoothly and efficiently handle the Covid pandemic restrictions artfully wrapping two thirds of its seating capacity in the theatre and allocating a table to each ticket purchase group for use before the show and at the interval. It creates a welcoming and safe feeling environment even if face coverings during the performances is a necessary irritation. However this production does not quite hit the extraordinary heights of the first play, Bloodshot, despite the excellent efforts of the Director Lucy Betts and the fine cast of Hannah Edwards as Amy and Benedict Salter as the rest of the thirty characters!  

The challenge is the structure of Ade Morris's play which intersperses a chronological retelling of the aviator's life story from her birth in Hull in 1903 to her death in 1941 mainly through exposition from Amy, with flash forwards to her final flight as a member of the World War II Air Transport Auxillary, and interactions with her husband Jim Mollison (from 1932 to 1938). At times it feels like an animated version of Wikipedia with some very detailed explanations of landings on her flights and then skipping over details of her health problems and very short episodic interactions with key characters in her life. It means we never really get sucked into the drama and emotions of her fascinating inspiring life while admiring her tenacity, bravery and single minded determination. 

Lucy Betts direction does its best with the script with a very carefully plotted props plan so that a single prop or costume adjustment is used to set a scene or create a character as the fast moving story switches from location to location and changes in period. The lighting design by Harry Armytage cleverly assists creating the shimmering reflection of the sea or the gloomy clouds and fog across the bleak black stage. I think the storytelling would have been assisted by some projected Pathe news style context setting to reduce the longer monologues of explanation and some projected maps of her flights. As in the Watermill Summer outdoor shows they make a virtue of social distancing with some good visuals gags when lighting a cigarette or dancing. 

Hannah Edwards is excellent throughout as Amy from her childhood memories of Zeppelins over the Humber, her school and university recollections and her first steps towards becoming a pilot and female ground engineer. She paints the picture of a bright, ambitious, independent woman who desperately desires a husband even though she believes that "love makes you dependant" and believes that angels "look after you until it's your time". She engages the audience with her wide eyed innocence and her contrasting fear on her fateful flight and in the end we are moved by her final plight.

Benedict Salter has the challenging task of playing everyone else in her life including her Fishmonger supportive Father, long time but distant admirer the Swiss Franz , her first flying instructor Valentine Baker, the engineer Jack Humphrey, her husband and fellow pilot Scottish Jim Mollison, her sponsor Lord Wakefield and even her female university friend as well as a host of other minor characters. He also plays a haunting cello to accompany the scenes throughout her final flight. Each appearance is short and sweet but he effectively distinguishes each with a simple change of costume and accent. 

It is an extraordinary story that is worth telling and her naive approach to flying to Darwin in 1930 (via Vienna, Turkey, Baghdad, Singapore) after a longest prior flight of just 150 miles is verging on madness but in the context of the period is a phenomenal achievement that earned her place in aviation history. She set a standard that others have followed and the Watermill itself is showing the rest of the Theatre industry how to produce in these trying circumstances. I am amazed it was not eligible for a grant from the £1.5billion of Government funding and is dependent on its Full House appeal to cover the deficits from the wrapped seats but like Amy Johnson's long flight they deserve our admiration and support and I hope will continue to set standards for years to come. 

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls row F | Price of Ticket: £23
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