What would it take to make you leave everything behind you – your job, your friends, your family – and take off into the unknown in pursuit of your dream?
And what price would you be willing to pay for what you might find at the journey’s end?
These are the two questions at the heart of “Lone Flier”, Ade Morris’s play about the mysterious death of pioneering aviator Amy Johnson (wonderfully played by Hannah Edwards) – the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia in 1930, in addition to setting many other flight records, before she inexplicably vanished in the Thames Estuary in 1941.
As the play opens, we join Amy during her last ever flight – shrouded in fog, low on fuel and above the sea. How did such an accomplished pilot end up in this situation – and how can it possibly end if not in disaster?
As panic sets in, voices from the past trigger a series of recollections which form the play – and (like a sister-companion to Roald Dahl’s two-volume autobiography “Boy” and “Going Solo”), Amy narrates her journey from childhood through to her current situation.
It’s a brilliant narrative device – Amy often breaks away from her memories and returns to her current plight in the aeroplane, so we never become too comfortable in the past and (like her) we struggle to see how she’ll survive as the fuel gauge sinks lower and lower.
While the recollections start off humorous and affectionate in tone, they quickly help us to understand not just how this remarkable woman came to achieve so much…but also why.
Because after an exciting and adventurous start to life, Amy quickly finds the realities of working life soul-destroying, while her early romances rapidly turn from hopeful joy to broken promises. It’s a testament to the fact that work might put food on the table, and relationships may be what we’re “supposed” to aim for – but really, everything can become meaningless if we’re not spiritually fulfilled too.
And while many of us might accept this as our lot, Amy finds the perfect escape in flying – the natural evolution of looking out to sea as a young girl and thinking “I want to swim out to the horizon”, but a goal with just as many obstacles.
The fact that she went on to make it her career, and broke so many records, really shouldn’t be underplayed – it would be difficult enough to match her achievements today, but in the 1930s it must have been torturous.
The spirit of the age is captured to perfection by the versatile Benedict Salter (simply billed as “The Man”) , who plays the multiple men who both help and hinder Amy through her life – be they exotic lovers, sympathetic fathers, hindering bosses or helpful mechanics – as well as female friends and jealous rivals.
But do they explain how Amy came to find herself in the dire straits we find her in? Was she desperately flying away from them all; was she ferrying a former lover out of the country; or was it a tragic accident? You’ll have to watch the play to find out…
The tone of my review might suggest that the play is serious, or dour – it really, really isn’t. Ade Morris’s script is by turns lyrical and fun, and this mixture of emotion and playfulness runs through The Watermill Theatre’s production.
There’s an almost toybox-like quality to the show – a pair of handlebars becomes a bike; trolleys become aeroplanes and giant typewriter carriages; Salter’s accomplished cello playing forms the sounds of the plane; and I’ve never seen socially-distanced cigarette lighting, but it’s really magical!
All of this comes together to help the play transcend the fog billowing around Amy’s plane and, much like the woman at its centre, leave a lasting inspiration behind.
“Lone Flier” runs from the 22nd October to the 21st November; tickets are available at https://www.watermill.org.uk. If you’re understandably cautious about Covid-19, the company have really gone out of its way to keep you safe – fresh air is circulated in the theatre, seating is socially-distances, a fogging machine deep-cleans the venue and there are hand sanitisers and a one-way system throughout the site.