Mrs. Roosevelt Flies to London – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Director: Lucy Skilbeck
Company: Hint of Lime Productions
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
In October 1942 Eleanor Roosevelt flew to Britain for an extended visit in which she paid morale-boosting visits to American troops, met the Royal Family and major politicians of all parties, saw for herself how Britain was coping and generally spread the message of support from the United States.
Alison Skilbeck has researched her subject very thoroughly with the aid of Eleanor Roosevelt’s diary and letters and such impeccable secondary sources as Doris Kearns Goodwin. First and foremost, this is an extremely convincing interpretation of one of the most influential women of the 20th century, a great diplomat and humanitarian as well as an unusually proactive First Lady, whose constant desire to be involved and useful, masked gaps in her emotional life.
Mrs. Roosevelt Flies to London is slight only in its length (75 minutes), its solitary performer (also Alison Skilbeck) and its minimal set. There is a certain amount of nicely handled fun around the meetings with, for instance, Queen Mary or Winston Churchill, Skilbeck sliding adeptly into brief impersonations and, as Mrs. Roosevelt – never the most conventional of establishment figures – commenting wryly on their idiosyncrasies. But the fun is balanced with serious observation: Mrs. Roosevelt shaken by the amount of destruction she witnesses or admiring the work of the Red Cross or the WVS (even though one WVS organiser is the subject of one of Skilbeck’s more sardonic lightning sketches).
However, Mrs. Roosevelt Flies to London also moves backwards and forwards in time to great effect. It begins with a dying Eleanor Roosevelt at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, despairing about the point of it all. Across the years from 1918 to 1962 she emphasises the need to win the peace as well as the war. The play shuffles seamlessly back to Eleanor’s schooldays in London, the emotional traumas of her marriage (first her husband’s infidelity, then his partial paralysis through polio), her ambiguous friendships with women and her intense commitment to liberal causes. Later references fill in the gaps of Eleanor Roosevelt’s astonishingly productive widowhood, especially as one of the moving spirits in the creation of the United Nations. We end the play on a note of uncertain optimism.
Directed unobtrusively by her unrelated namesake Lucy Skilbeck, Alison Skilbeck gives a truthful performance of no little subtlety. She leaves no doubt about Eleanor Roosevelt’s greatness as a public figure and a human being, but reveals her emotional uncertainty, her capacity for tactless comment and her rather comical pride in her own prodigious energy levels: she always gleefully reports the wilting of the reporters following her.
In a pared down production Emma Laxton’s sound design is precise and perfectly judged: from trains and planes to the music of Tommy Dorsey and (very movingly) Marian Anderson.
Reviewed on: 10th April 2015