The story of Amy Johnson, a pioneering woman pilot at Jermyn Street
“He sold enough kippers to live on the side of Hull, that didn’t smell of fish”
Amy Johnson talking about her fish merchant father
Jermyn Street Theatre brings into town the biodrama about the woman dubbed “the British Girl Lindberg”. Amy Johnson (Hannah Edwards) was born in Kingston upon Hull in 1903 and at the age of 11 was fascinated by the Zeppelins flying overhead. Her father, John William Johnson was a successful fish merchant in the family firm and she was persuaded to go to university in Sheffield where she read economics.
Instead of becoming a teacher, which is what the few women graduates used to do in the 1920s, she found a flying club in London and moved there taking an apprenticeship at Peter Jones, the drapers in “Silks and Satins”. Maybe retail didn’t suit this high flyer and she left after a few weeks to work for a solicitor who offered to train her as an articled clerk with a salary that could pay for some flying lessons.
Hannah Edwards narrates Amy Johnson’s story, helped by the remarkably versatile Benedict Salter, billed as taking “Various” roles. He plays her father John, her lover Franz from Switzerland, whose Catholicism disturbs Amy’s Methodist mother, Jim Mallinson her eventual husband, her surgeon, every other flying tutor and aircraft engineer and even, her eccentric and “dangerous friend”, Winifred. Salter’s characters change with accents and posture, blazer and jackets and a plethora of head gear, a boater, a bowler, leather flying helmets, but Amy Johnson had just one costume she wants to wear, a sheepskin flying jacket and a flying helmet.
Partially funded by her father (all the other British female pilots were Lady Something) Amy Johnson joins the Flying Club based at Stag Lane private Aerodrome which is now a part of the Hendon complex of the RAF museum and aerodrome. Women weren’t allowed in the hangars at the aerodrome because they were thought to be a distraction but Amy was. The subterfuge was that her name became “Johnnie” while she was working there.
I think they used to call these early planes, hers is a Gypsy Moth, kites and the stage mock up is almost a wooden kite shape but I never doubted for one minute that I was seeing Amy Johnson really flying. The sound effects obviously help but this engrossing production in the intimate space at Jermyn Street suspends incredulity. Benedict Salter plays the cello for musical atmosphere and a collection of leather suitcases pin us firmly in the 1920s and 30s.
Hannah Edwards is fresh faced and shows Amy Johnson’s remarkable persistence as she qualifies not only as a pilot but as a mechanic. Her performance has theatrical charm and she is also credited as the choreographer. There is lots of humour in her story and, despite being told to keep her mouth shut when smiling, because she lost her front teeth playing cricket, she grins and her narrative is delivered with fun and panache. Credit must also go to Hannah Edwards’ wingman, Benedict Salter whose startlingly fast changes of character amuse.
The production has come from the Watermill in Newbury and is written and directed by two of their associates, Ade Morris the writer and Lucy Betts the director. Lone Flyer is a part of Jermyn Street’s Footprints Festival.
There is still debate about how Amy Johnson died. She was flying as a part of the British war effort in the ATA which transported RAF planes around the bases. When her plane went down in the Thames Estuary in 1941 it has been speculated that she was taken out by “friendly fire”. Her body was never found. She broke many records flying to Australia, South Africa and India loaded up with extra fuel but also stopping, of course, to refuel.
Written by Ade Morris
Directed by Lucy Betts
Director: Lucy Betts
Original Set Designer: Isobel Nicolson
Original Costume Designer: Emily Barratt
Lighting Designer: Johanna Town
Sound Designer: Justin Teasdale
Choreographer: Hannah Edwards
Original Sound Designers: Thom Townsend,
Jamie Kubisch Wiles
Original Lighting Designer: Harry Armytage
Original Producers: Watermill Theatre
Video Associate: Mikaela Liakata
Fight Director: Kevin McCurdy
Running Time: One hours 50 minutes with one interval
Booking at Jermyn Street until 3rd July 2021
Jermyn Street Theatre
16B Jermyn Street
London SW1Y 6ST
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at Jermyn Street Theatre
on 9th June 2021