There’s an element of risk in anything one does. Amy Johnson (1903-1941) (Hannah Edwards) didn’t do things by halves. Known for being the first woman to fly on her own from England to Australia in May 1930 – yes, there were stopovers, and as Lone Flyer both dramatizes and describes, plenty of them. The circumstances of her final flight during the Second World War are also laid bare in detail, but at least on first viewing, it wasn’t entirely clear whether when her final flight actually was. In essence, there’s a little too much flitting about between her last moments and other aspects of her life, and the narrative becomes unnecessarily complicated as a result.
The audience gets a good overview of Johnson’s life, starting with her formative years in Kingston upon Hull, then her student life at the University of Sheffield, and various jobs in adulthood, including as secretary to a solicitor and a stint in the lingerie department at Peter Jones in London’s Sloane Square. As the production would have it, it was during the First World War that she first saw aircraft flying overhead, and was inspired by it. Later on, her gender was a sticking point, with some frustration on Johnson’s part at the sort of roles women were generally expected to perform at the time, if they were to enter the workplace at all.
She read economics at Sheffield, and later studied aircraft engineering, eventually obtaining a ‘C’ licence (the Civil Aviation Authority still calls it that to this day). A near-relentless pursuit of a career in aviation leaves some room for a love life. Benedict Salter ably takes on several roles, not all of them men, though the most notable are Johnson’s father John; her love interest, a Swiss man called Franz; and a fellow pilot, Jim Mollison, who would go on to become Johnson’s husband. There’s some actor-musicianship, too, with clever use of the cello to recreate the sound of aircraft as well as play the sort of tunes that would have been popular at the time. Salter does brilliantly at distinguishing between various characters, with clear distinctions in tone and accent.
One is briefly reminded of public health restrictions at the time of writing when the two actors dance together but remain apart. Socially distanced cigarette lighting is impeccably performed. That said, the necessity of the absence of intimacy does mean expressions of love are not quite as convincing as they otherwise might have been, though the bubbly script, full of creative descriptions, does much to help maintain interest. It was interesting to note the press coverage of Johnson’s aviation exploits – she was, for instance, described as ‘blonde’ (despite not being blonde) – make of that what you will. Unsurprisingly, Johnson found media intrusion difficult to cope with, and this production does well to capture both her boldness and her vulnerability.
Scene changes are fairly speedy – a trolley is wheeled out to function as the open cockpit of Johnson’s aeroplane – and while the subject matter may, at face value, seem intense and weighty, the material is presented in a respectful but nonetheless optimistic manner. There are even a few laugh-out-loud moments. An engaging evening about an extraordinary life well-lived.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Jermyn Street Theatre headlines June with Lucy Betts’ acclaimed production of Ade Morris’s Lone Flyer. First staged at The Watermill Theatre last October, the production will run from 8 June to 3 July, playing to socially distanced live audiences as well as being streamed online.
Hannah Edwards (Call the Midwife – BBC) stars as Amy, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Benedict Salter reprises his various roles, as Amy attempts to escape one life and aim for the stars. A powerful play about an inspirational woman
By Ade Morris
Directed by Lucy Betts
Set design by Isobel Nicolson
Costume design by Emily Barratt
Sound design by Jamie Kubisch Wiles and Thom Townsend
Lighting design by Harry Armytage
Choreography by Hannah Edwards
Original production by Watermill Theatre
Tuesday 8 June Saturday 3 July 2021