Watermill Theatre, Newbury – until 21 November 2020
There’s gallantry in small theatres managing ‘distancing’ and keeping the arduous rules, and the Watermill scores high: outdoor productions in summer, now Ade Morris’ intriguing history-play as its second indoor show. Seats are elegantly blocked off with red ribbon as if, somehow, even Covid Year has to be celebrated.
The story of Amy Johnson bears much retelling. In that heady 1920s period, when after the WW1 formation of the Royal Flying Corps government and public opinion went mad for “air-mindedness”. Ramshackle Flying Circuses toured the little aerodromes with wing-walkers and loop-the-loop rides, and several daring aristocratic ladies took to clouds in fragile little planes. They would nip down to Biarritz or Cannes for parties in couture flying-suits: actually some later became more than useful, delivering WW2 Spitfires around the country.
But Amy Johnson was not of that class, just the second daughter of a fairly prosperous fish merchant in Hull. First of her family to study at University, she eschewed the conventional female roles of housewife or teacher, and worked as a secretary to a solicitor with the aim of taking to law. When the flying bug bit her and her father sighed and paid for lessons, she got her hands dirty, qualifying as the first woman to get her aero engineering ticket. Then at short notice, chasing a record and urged on by the men who admired her nerve and talent (though she was “never much good at landings”), she became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, in 19 gruelling days, and subsequently set other records. In 1941 she was killed doing a wartime air delivery, parachuting to her death in Herne Bay.
Here, in a simple ingenious set of suitcases, trunks, and a trolley, she is Hannah Edwards: spry and determined, smilingly bounding about, nicely a bit irritating at first, gradually drawing our respect. She remembers childhood rebellions , her long early affair with the Swiss potato-biz traveller Franz (eight year her senior and worryingly uncommitted) and her tempestuous later marriage to her fellow flyer Jim Mollison. Benedict Salter plays everyone else: father, lovers, engineers, politicians and – in a fetching boater – the best friend Winifred who encouraged her rackety, roaring-twenties feminist determination. Salter also picks up a ‘cello to create the little plane’s engine sounds, smooth or faltering and carrying remarkable, nervy humming tension; sometimes he plays a few haunting melodic bars.
The pair work beautifully together under director Lucy Betts, Edwards conveying the charm , the uncertain early naivetés and the gritty, sometimes frightened determination of Amy both aloft and below. What is striking, in these odd times, is how much is added by the very fact that like us in the stalls they are two-meter distancing. When he flicks his lighter as she draws on the cigarette on the other side of the stage, eyes locked, or when the lovers dance it is oddly more erotic than the routine onstage mauling and pouncing of which we are now deprived. When in her celebrity years he becomes an important personage reaching to shake her hand, she is in her mechanic’s overalls, wiping hers with an oily rag, so obviously he backs off. It is wittily effective.
If I have a quibble it is with the play’s structure: moving around in the timescale is fine, usually well indicated by costume tweaks. Her childhood moments and relationship with her father are certainly neatly reflected in her later life and loves, and tensely interspersed with moments in the air on that epic journey to Darwin. But there are other voyages told of, and moments about her two great loves and the struggle of global celebrity (“Fame is like battery acid, use it but don’t drink it”, good line). There are picaresque details like her crash into a British parade ground in India , or a desperate shenanigan with Turkish bureaucracy. And though it is framed both by that first Australia record and her whole life – including the final wartime crash – sometimes it is not easy to know where you are, or what resulted from what. Those who know her history well will be happy with it as a grippingly impressionistic portrait of a remarkable woman. Those who don’t might need a fuller programme note. My first lines above would do.
But these are quibbles. It was a great evening, atmospheric and gripping and done with panache. Another happy Watermill memory.
box office watermill.org.uk to 21 November