Our theatre reviewer, Hannah Hobson, shares her thoughts on Lone Flyer at Hull Truck Theatre.
As a Hull native myself, Amy Johnson is a name that’s echoed throughout childhood history lessons and museum trips. So, walking into the Heron theatre for Press Night, I thought I knew what to expect.
Lone Flyer’s subtitle is ‘The Last Flight of Amy Johnson,’ I knew this was unlikely to be a story with a happy ending. What I didn’t expect, however, was to discover just how little I knew about Johnson and to find that, even what I did know, was completely reinvented for the stage.
Louise Willoughby plays the titular Amy with ease. She brings both a ferocity of spirit to Amy and an enormous sense of pathos. The non-linear structure of the show means Willoughby must leapfrog back and forth through Amy’s life, but she never misses an emotional beat. More than this, however, despite much of the show being concerned with Amy’s relationships with men, Willoughby never lets Johnson lose power. It is through her performance that the show demonstrates Johnson’s truest love, flying.
Across from Willoughby is Benedict Salter who flicks through a catalogue of characters and accents within the show’s runtime. While credited as ‘The Man’ it is more accurate to say that Salter plays Johnson’s Men (and one Winifred). It is a subtle but transformative performance. From patriarchs to lotharios, he has each minute change in hand, as well as a cello which adds drama to the play’s more dramatic scenes.
As mentioned earlier, the structure of the play is non-linear. Johnson’s final flight is used to frame the events of her entire life, providing a scaffold to drive the action. Ade Morris has managed to impose momentum on a true story, something which writers of biographical works often fail to do. Without his technical cunning, the inevitability of the play’s finale would feel heavy, but he has smartly given Amy’s life wings. While I still felt that covering Johnson’s whole life meant little focus could be given to any of her relationships individually, Morris has managed to comprehensively encapsulate a life on stage without ever allowing the storytelling to feel dry.
Such a complicated structure could easily be mishandled, but Lucy Betts’ direction excellently navigates the work. If I ever lost my place for a minute, I was always regrounded in the narrative quickly. Betts’ direction balances real human storytelling with often symbolic staging. The show is littered with clever stage tricks to keep the play on its toes. It is a work that feels constantly in motion, it rushes by and feels much shorter than its 95-minute run time. I left the auditorium wanting to learn even more of Amy Johnson.
The design team, Isobel Nicolson (design), Harry Armytage (lighting design) and Emily Barratt (costume designer) have done an excellent job of building an environment for Amy from clouds, suitcases, and heavy bomber jackets. There’s a subtlety to each element, some of the best worldbuilding I have seen onstage. This is aided further by the sound design from Justin Teasdale and orchestrations from Tom Attwood. Together they create a landscape of sound for the action to fly through.
Overall, Lone Flyer is an excellent night out at the theatre. There’s an educational aspect that I am sure would suit older children and no doubt inspire many a future flyer. The play provides a timely reminder that one woman can, in her way, change her slice of the world, for the better.