Lone Flyer review, Watermill, Newbury: our imagination is borne up, up and away

Dominic Cavendish
·3-min read
Hannah Edwards and Benedict Salter in Lone Flyer, at the Watermill Theatre -  Pamela Raith
Hannah Edwards and Benedict Salter in Lone Flyer, at the Watermill Theatre - Pamela Raith

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.

Hannah Edwards and Benedict Salter in Lone Flyer, at the Watermill Theatre - Pamela Raith
Hannah Edwards and Benedict Salter in Lone Flyer, at the Watermill Theatre - Pamela Raith

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.

Until Nov 21. Tickets: 01635 46044; watermill.org.uk