Yorkshire Theatre Newsletter: What's On This Week (Oct 22-28)
"You Are Under Arrest!" Proper Job Theatre adapt Franz Kafka's novel The Trial. Plus -- The last flight of Amy Johnson and why it matters so much to women (Lone Flyer review)
Pioneering air ace Amy Johnson met her death in the icy waters of the Thames Estuary on January 5th, 1941. Ade Morris’s script for Lone Flyer, ostensibly the story of this final, disastrous journey, does little to explain why Britain’s leading aviatrix — who made record-breaking solo flights to Australia and South Africa — was assigned in wartime to a supposedly safe support role, delivering new planes to their appointed UK air field. Instead it aims to get under the skin of this much-photographed woman, whose self-consciousness about her missing front teeth (knocked out during a game of cricket when she was a teenager) meant she often turned to the camera with a stony face.
One cannot over-estimate Amy Johnson’s fame during the 1930s. She was introduced to Presidents and hobnobbed with Charlie Chaplin and Bernard Shaw. She did (with first boyfriend Hans Arregger) at a time when nice girls still didn’t. And her marriage to fellow aviator Jim Mollison was a press-pursued celebrity affair, which soon went the way of most celebrity hook-ups. There were product endorsements, sponsorships and publicity deals with the Daily Mail. And on top of all this she was university educated and had an engineering qualification. Amy Johnson was, by 1940s standards, an emancipated woman of unrivalled sophistication.
But, for all that, there was more than a hint of Peggy the Chalet Maid (from the BBC sitcom Hi De Hi) in actress Louise Willoughby’s portrayal of the Hull lass who went global. In this she was aided by the script. That baffling last trip — aiming at landlocked Oxfordshire, ending in the English Channel — is employed as a framing device with an increasingly lost and terrified Amy looking back at her eventful life. It’s an understandable bid for empathy. See! This remarkable woman is just like us.
But was she? Aero-engineering made rapid strides during the 1920s and 1930s but those early flying machines were tanks of explosive fuel kept in the air — more or less — by bits and pieces of flammable material. You had to be insane to want to go up in one. Either that, or you’d made your peace with death.
Sure, she had her dark times, her ‘mental health issues’. That is, she reacted with grief and disappointment when life — of which she clearly had high expectations — failed to go her way. And her sister’s suicide shook her up badly. But out of this stew came renewed resolve.
The problem with life, as Czech novelist Milan Kundera observed, is that it can only be lived forwards. And that’s the wrong way round for us to make sense of it. This Hull Truck-Watermill Theatre co-production has the benefit of hindsight in a way that Amy Johnson herself didn’t. So when Morris’s lyrical death prose interrupts the narrative at intervals, abruptly reminding us of the horrors to come, it adds a distorting element. It makes her demise seem like a failure of nerve, when it was more likely a failure of factory-fresh instrumentation.
Eight decades before social media, we can’t know with any certainty what Amy was feeling on that final flight. She’d been, as the script observed, in serious pickles before and survived them. She might have been scared, or she might have been… furious. Or furiously alive. She might even have felt nothing as the training kicked in.
The trouble is, Amy packed so much into her brief span (1903-1941). With a lot of ground to cover, Lone Flyer becomes, under Lucy Betts direction, a whistlestop tour in which actor Benedict Salter multi-tasks heroically as every other character who was significant in her life. That was mostly men, but there were some women too. Dogged in the pursuit of her own ambitions, she did a lot to emancipate women.
Despite having her share of man troubles, and a talent for female friendship, she was not a feminist. She was a do-er, rather than a thinker or a talker. And yet, driving home late at night by myself across the Wolds under an ethereal display of Northern Lights, I felt emboldened by her spirit. She’d have loved this…
After her death, Amy’s grief-stricken father amassed a collection of memorabilia which eventually found its way to Sewerby Hall near Bridlington where it remains on permanent display. Some day soon I’ll be making the pilgrimage. Hull Truck Theatre, to Oct 30, £10-£28.50
What’s On This Week (Oct 15-21)
Huddersfield’s Proper Job Theatre Company are touring a new piece inspired by Franz Kafka’s famous novel early 20th-century novel The Trial, about a man arrested for an unspecified crime which he is pretty sure he never committed.
Proper Job’s version, which is set a world of surveillance and digital dependency, has been written by Leeds-based playwright Chris O’Connor with mentoring by ‘Two Guv’nors’ author Richard Bean. It explores “big data, public shaming and the nature of guilt” — all of which is very on-point. The Civic, Barnsley, Oct 22, £12 & £14, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Oct 26 & 27, £16, CAST, Doncaster, Oct 28, £12 & £15, St Wilfrid’s Church, Harrogate, Oct 30 and Seven Artspace, Leeds, Oct 31, £15.
Meanwhile Leeds Playhouse have Jitney, a modern classic by under-rated American playwright August Wilson. It’s set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the 1970s; illegal ‘jitney’ services fill the gap in an historically Afro-American neighbourhood where regular taxi cabs are reluctant to visit. To Nov 6, £14-£34
And Unit 28, The Piazza, Huddersfield, is the ‘site-specific’ location for Every Thing, a new play by Tom Lodge. It depicts the final day of trading of an electrical goods store. To Oct 23, £0-£15 (pay what you can).
With family favourites forming an ever larger portion of theatre programming in the run-up to Christmas, Sheffield Theatres have the musical Bedknobs And Broomsticks, a Disney touring production based on the classic Disney movie.
Once again, the Second World War’s child evacuation programme serves the vital dramatic function of separating plucky young things from their parents so they can go on adventures. Witches are included… Oct 26-30, £15-£55, returning to the Grand Theatre, Leeds, Dec 8-Jan 2, £19-£52.
Leeds Playhouse, in association with Ramps On The Moon, are hosting their landmark production of Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens’s novel has been adapted by the brilliant Bryony Lavery, and puts deaf and disabled artists at the centre of the tale with creatively integrated sign language, audio description and captioning. Please sir, I want some more! has never been more relevant. Oct 25-Nov 20, £15-£25.
And Harrogate Theatre have Our Gate, a recorded version of this year’s community play. Created by local writer Rachael Halliwell and director Amie Burns Walker, it features an intergenerational community and professional cast in a dystopian thriller-type scenario. To Oct 26, £5 (though there’s a hefty £2.75 booking fee on top of this).
And for those who wonder why I ruin a good newsletter by banging on about transgender ideology - here it is. The 10-part BBC documentary podcast that explains what’s really going on and why it affects us. In a move worthy of a John Le Carre spy novel, it had to be made at arm’s length by BBC Ulster. London Centre is too implicated in the madness.
Rest assured that BBC impartiality rules have been scrupulously followed by this revered team, who are more used to facing down terrorists: Nolan Investigates: Stonewall
The radical Red Ladder Theatre Company began life in London during the agitprop era of the 1960s. It has survived by reinventing itself for each new decade and is now a Leeds institution. Their latest outing, My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored, is the debut stage play of Nana-Kofi Kufuor, a writer of Ghanian heritage. Originally scheduled for production in 2019, it encompasses many themes not just of ‘black identity’ but of how, and when, one should intervene in a situation one disagrees with and the nature of human agency. Leeds Playhouse, Nov 11-13, £14-£19, CAST, Doncaster, Nov 23, £9 & £13.50, Pocklington Arts Centre, Nov 25, £8-£12, Barnsley Civic, Nov 27, £8-£13, Sheffield Theatres (Studio), Nov 29 & 30, £13-£15.
PS You may have noticed that there was no edition last week, and this week’s is short. (I’m always guilt-stricken when I have to leave out good things!) To tell the truth, my life is a bit over-committed at the moment so you will have to bear with me over the next week or two until I get myself sorted out (and start saying No! to a few things).
I did, however, manage to get to Scarborough on Tuesday, to see Janice Okoh’s feelgood adaptation of Benjamin Myers's novel The Offing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It’s set in Robin Hood’s Bay just after the Second World War, so I couldn’t resist. My review will appear in next week’s Newsletter. To Oct 30, phone for availability.