I spent quite a bit of time last week at the Brighton Fringe so thought it only fair to get caught up with some of the shows on offer from Jermyn Street Theatre’s concurrently running Footprints Festival. This ambitious 11-week mix of small scale plays, solo pieces and cabaret turns is sensibly making heavy use of revived productions often reinvented as socially distanced performances to cope with all the new restrictions which exist for both performers and audience – and, of course, they are also putting it all online.
Lone Flyer was originally seen in 2001 but was revived during the pandemic break last autumn at the Watermill in Newbury. Now Lucy Betts’ production has transferred to Jermyn Street to become the second of the festival’s three anchor plays. With just two performers who maintain their distance at all times and a storyline that concentrates on the indomitability of the human spirit, it is a good fit as we move into a month’s extension of the lockdown.
It is a biographical piece celebrating the achievements of pioneer aeronaut Amy Johnson who is mostly remembered for two things; that she was the first person to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930 and that she disappeared after encountering adverse weather conditions during a rather more mundane flight in 1941. However, beyond this she was a social pioneer too, refusing to accept that she had to be pigeonholed as a wife and mother and looking beyond the narrow confines of traditionally female occupations such as nursing or teaching. The play celebrates this aspect of her life as much as it does her aerial achievements.
Rather than a straightforward chronological narrative the storyline shifts between Johnson’s last flight (she somehow seems to know that it is her last) and her consequent reflections on her past life. Ade Morris’ script keeps things moving along at a brisk pace but with a lot to cram in some scenes move just a little too quickly. Light and sound are intelligently used to evoke the time shifts and the set design itself by Isobel Nicholson is kept relatively simple to conjure up multi-locations.
The biggest challenge, of course, is in recreating the Gypsy Moth aeroplane – a simple moveable trolley stands in and works very well. Hannah Edwards makes a fine job of Amy – sparky, resilient and assured that the trailblazing path she is treading is her destiny. Perhaps even more remarkable is Benedict Salter who plays everyone else, taking on dozens of characters including Amy’s father, her erstwhile Swiss lover, her fellow pilot and husband and her best friend. His characterisations are exact and conjured up with a mere change of voice and/or the donning of a hat or two. And if that isn’t enough he also plays the cello evocatively. This is an engaging piece of historical biography which fleshes out the triumphs of this pioneer and has just the right message about determination and daring being key to human survival.
Hannah Kumari’s protagonist Lizzie is also making moves into traditional male territory in her solo show Eng-er-land. She is a Coventry supporter on her way to the match; the friends that are supposed to be going with her let her down and so we (the audience) are invited along instead. As Lizzie makes her way to the grounds she chats all things football including her hopes for her team’s success and how England got on in the recent Euros (that’s the 1996 Euros to be clear). Increasingly as the play develops we also get to find out a lot about Lizzie’s life experiences as a teenager of mixed race parentage (she prefers that term to half caste) and how she is apparently viewed by those around her. We run into certain of her acquaintances, travel on the bus to the ground and enjoy some of her dance moves but the predominant topic is the beautiful game as she shares stories and her match programmes. Lizzie is endearingly patronising in her explanations – she tells us what an own goal is in case we’re not football fans and can’t work it out – but this only heightens the sense of her enthusiasm which seems unbounded. Both in her writing and performance Hannah Kumari exudes enormous amounts of energy which brings the piece to life. However, with the abundant overkill of football on TV at the moment it wasn’t a subject that strongly appealed to me engagingly played though it was.