Monthly Archives: October 2020

LONE FLYER – Watermill, nr Newbury

THE ROARING TWENTIES:  AMY FLIES AGAIN

   

      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 1920’s 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,  but 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 qualified 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, gradaully 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

rating four  

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THE LAST FIVE YEARS Southwark Playhouse SE1

And so to a real press night, an event now as rare as a mystical apparition , a shining sword rising from a dark lake. . The gallant Southwark Playhouse offers a miniature musical, Jason Robert Brown’s 90 minute wonder The Last Five Years.

   A quick note on how southwark now works: to get sufficient bodies in – 50% –   they have spaced the rows and divided seats with tall plastic transparent screens according to bookings: so that if you are a  broad-shouldered loner both arms are a bit pinioned and your masked neighbours safely but disconcertingly seen as if  tropical fish. unnervingly close and muffled .

It is weird. But it is theatre .  The rows look fabulously full despite the immaculate screening (god, they must be wiping perspex for hours).  Sound effects  of New York sirens set the tone and  excitement  for this two-hander relating young love and its ending. It’s ingeniously beautiful: the tale first told forward by he exuberant Jewish Jamie “I’m breaking my mother’s heart…my shiksa goddess!” but backwards by Kathy, starting with a starkly beautiful, angry opening lament “Jamie has come to the end of the line.James says the problem is mine”.  These are two souls ambitious both for love and for success: he a burgeoning writer , she a musical theatre hopeful . They ae careering rockily towards the moment when the pressures of ambition on the workaday compromises of new marriage blow it all apart. 

   It’s a blast, a rollercoaster of jazz and blues and ballad and rock and vaudeville and at one point klezmer;   the most joyously exuberant, emotionally rackety return imaginable for the valiant London fringe. I loved it. Molly Lynch is honey-voiced, expressive, touching and enraging both: Oli Higginson, devastatingly handsome , gives us all the boyish bounce and painful longings of being 23 years old, clever, and greedy for life . THere’s a wonderful Sondheimish reflection once on how women suddenly come on to newly married men; moments of naïveté and sparks of sad self- knowledge as the pair – who only coincide in time at their wedding mid show – weave round one another and in and off  the revolving grand piano, playing it in turn with the musicians overhead enriching the sound. They are vividly real and young in the lively, mobile direction by Jonathan O’Boyle.

The lyrics are sharp, often funny – Kathy’s audition scene elegantly skewers the cattle-market horrors of the biz, and there is poignant humour in Jamie’s vain attempt to get his sulky, professionally disappointed wife to come to his triumphant book launch. “No-one can give you courage, no-one can thicken your skin”… Why should he fail in order to make her comfortable? Ouch!

    It’s a good tale, a young story, a vortex of youthful energy. In our weird Perspex alcoves, forgetting the sweatiness of our masks, we roared and stamped. Happy to be back.  Very.

http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

rating 5

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TALKING HEADS – PLAYING SANDWICHES/ LADY OF LETTERS Bridge, SE1

TWO MORE FROM ALAN BENNETT

             One of the darkest and one of the merriest.   PlAYING SANDWICHES  is an even more than usually sombre one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.    I well remember the shock of it on TV first time round. Then it was David Haig as the amiable park- keeper who gradually let us know why his work papers were not in order, why he had moved around and was not a family godparent – and at last how succumbing to his weakness for small girls put his final scene in a prison cell.

         It was a brave piece (years later I talked with Haig about doing it at a time of knife-edge horror about paedophilia).   And the interest of it centres on the way that in early scenes the man with the broom expresses his disgust at the sluttish, condom-chucking sexual libertarianism , whose detritus he daily helps to clear. Not enough is ever said about the way that our newly enfranchised, judgement-free attitude to sex and its variants leaves “perverts” even lonelier in their dangerous taboo desires than even half a century ago. 

    Performed live,  it should have even more shocking punch , and Lucien Msamati is one of our finest actors (will never forget his Master Harold and the Boys at the NT last autumn – https://theatrecat.com/2019/10/01/master-harold-and-the-boys-lyttelton-se1/).    But somehow it doesn’t quite gell.  Maybe he is too amiable, lacking the edge of prim ness which in the original raised the thoughts above about the the paradox of sexual liberty. He is too likeable, too light in his condemnations. Only in the prison scenes does Msamati remind us he is a great actor, evoking  evoke that Bennettian quiet despair which is in its way as noble as any heroism. 

LADY OF LETTERS  is a wisely placed contrast in this pair, and rapidly produces those marvellous ripples of laughter which remind us why we’re watching g these TV-created shows in a real theatre.  Which buzzes,  despite the distancing,  with the  comradely magic sharing we have so hungered for under Covid.  Imelda Staunton has Irene to a T:   the thwarted, lonely, disapproving busybody writing of letters of complaint to public bodies and shading before our eyes into a poison-pen. 

        Staunton absolutely knows how to work the top Bennett jokes, like the description of a vicar’s unwanted visit and the splendid tale of interaction with Westminster Council cleansing department.  We forget that letter-writing is a bit pre-Internet dated, as is the responsiveness of the Council.    But this treasurable actor  also knows how, with nothing but a rigid face and long long pause, to handle the central shock: the first comeuppance, the one I won’t spoil for newcomers. 

    So it’s bliss. But also particularly blissful because this is the very nearest our Alan ever gets to giving us a happy fairytale ending: a full-on unapologetic redemption.   I’m a sucker for those.  I left very happy.  

     It’s my third Bridge visit in  this strange etiolated season – getting a bit expensive,  so I may not make the other six Bennetts.  My admiration for what Hytner and Starr have done is  boundless. Seats placed in distanced clutches , drinks brought to you (my husband loves it, says it’s like Club Class, and won’t listen when I shout “but it’s financially ruinous! Got to get bums on seats or there’ll be no theatre! “).  Elegant use is made of projection, top performers hired, direction artfully theatrical  not telly, and the atmosphere laid back and safe.

      With the West End dark and real fear for theatre’s survival, trips to the – unsubsidised, gallant –  Bridge are sustaining.

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk    Running in rep.    

rating    Sandwiches 3       Lady of Letters 5    average 4

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