Review of Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London at the King’s Head Theatre
This lovely biopic narrating the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to London during World War II, performed by the inimitable Alison Skilbeck, is a gem in the one woman show genre. An inspired and insightful play that has been thoroughly researched, and more importantly loved, Skilbeck shows us the motivations and energies behind the difficult life of a relatively unsung mover and shaker of the Second World War.
I should say Skilbecks, for coincidentally both director and performer/creator, have the same surname. They definitely make a unified and successful team. The direction of this play, by Lucy Skilbeck, is simple, touching and effective. The material itself is original writing enhanced by excerpts from primary resources such as letters and Eleanor Roosevelt’s diary. They reveal a pain in her private life but also a little-known fun and energy which previous profiles of this woman, known for her pragmatism and doggedness, tend to ignore.
Alison Skilbeck is a sparkling Mrs Roosevelt and captures the dynamism with which this First Lady worked to improve life for the working classes. We hear about the struggles she faced as the ‘negroes’ friend’ and her insistence at getting Eisenhower to provide American troops with decent ‘woollen socks’. In making this a one woman show the production also highlights the evident loneliness that comes with leading such a high profile existence, especially when one’s husband is habitually unfaithful. It is bittersweet, at times utterly comedic and interspersed with moments of true sadness. Just like Eleanor Roosevelt herself, Skilbeck never lets the energy lag for even a moment and the drive forward is insistent and enthralling. She is everyone of a who’s-who of World War Two characters, from Churchill to the Queen and her movement about the stage is perfectly timed and engaging.
For 2015 the feel of the play is perhaps a little patriotic; work could have been done to make it more relevant to contemporary viewers, especially in its comic but still reverent approach to the Royals and it’s celebration of the British welfare ideology, which is now all but gone. And at times it felt a little like a docudrama rather than a piece of theatre. All in all though, this is a thoroughly entertaining and moving story of a woman who truly and selflessly believed that she could make the world a better place through hard work and commitment to her ideals. Running at just one hour and fifteen minutes this was the perfect introduction to Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt and I know that I for one would love to invite her to afternoon tea, just for the opportunity to get to know her better.
Review by Annemarie Hiscott
An old woman, cadaverous under harsh light, wakes fretful, remembering a war and shuddering at the Cuba missile crisis : it is 1962. We know that it will resolve, but it strikingly reminds us how that threat felt to the generation which endured World War 2. As the old woman springs up and sheds twenty years (good lighting moment!) we share Eleanor Roosevelt’s memories of 1942.
What memories they are too: even my generation is too little aware of the lady’s gallantry, gaiety and liberal passion; how admirable for Alison Skilbeck’s tightly researched, elegant monologue as the “world’s first lady” to come back to a young King’s Head audience. Especially in this VE-day anniversary year (and just as another Presidential wife, Hillary Clinton, declares her shot for the top job).
Eleanor, of course, never went that far, though after the death of her cousin-husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945 she remained a force, instrumental in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But her intelligence, nerve and above all sheer driving goodwill had played no small role in that war, and in the emergence of the American liberal spirit. Orphaned in childhood, raised without much love, she found a husband who for all his qualities (and despite being crippled with polio ) was not above marital betrayals, needing, as she ruefully observed, always a woman at hand to admire him. She was more a harness-mate, a prodder and goader and inspirer. For her own emotional fulfilment there were the warm women friends.
But in 1942, at no small risk she flew over and toured blitzed Britain, with the stated intention of encouraging the women’s war effort but in effect offering wider cheer and encouragement. Not least – as an early cheerleader for racial justice – to the African-American servicemen in Liverpool, about whom she cheekily informed a Southern senator the white girls “do not look at with terror” . Franklin was not pleased about that note, or her sneered reputation as the “Negroes’ Friend”; he needed the Southern vote, and the Ku Klux Klan quite explicitly threatened the rebellious Eleanor.
There are light moments, as the Queen (our Queen Mother) apologizes for the freezing cold of Buckingham Palace with the windows blown out, and for the economy tide=ring painted round the baths; as she sits next to Churchill and finds him rather hard going, or notices how exhausted the reporters seem to be by her fierce itinerary of night-shift workers and whistlestop city tours. She sees Rattigan’s Flare Path, experiences rather too many brussels sprouts, Moments of memory enlighten us about her life and beginnings; Lucy Skilbeck (spookily, no relation) directs a spirited 75-minute evocation both of the woman and the nation she travelled through. Sometimes Skilbeck moves to a suitably retro microphone to deliver some of the speeches of the time; sometimes quotes from Eleanor’s real letters home.
It is a bit Edinburgh-fringey, and absolutely deserves to be done with more expense and a little expansion: projections, photographs, bits of film maybe, audio from the time. But I wouldn’t change the performer, nor the spirit. And am intensely glad to have seen and admired both the show and the late Mrs R.
Reviewed by Libby Purves.
**** Islington Gazette
Eleanor Roosevelt’s British expedition has received a first class adaptation, says Caroline David.
In 1942 Eleanor Roosevelt paid a morale-boosting visit to Britain, met the Prime Minister and Royal family and did a whistle-stop tour of cites to see how the nation was coping. Alison Skilbeck’s impressive one-woman show pays tribute to an exceptional political campaigner.
Skilbeck’s subject matter is very thoroughly researched with the aid of Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters and diary. The play moves backwards and forwards within a frame that establishes Eleanor in old age swaddled in a coat in a nursing home. The scenes encapsulate moments from the trip, interspersed with key personal memories. Eleanor’s rich life is conjured up in multiple dimensions. The detail is consistently impressive; from the scope of her humanitarian work and journalism to the personal tragedy of losing both parents in childhood, and Franklin’s affairs, resulting in their decision to run their marriage as ‘a partnership apart’. The script twists and turns with plenty of witty asides and confessions. Skilbeck delivers every second on stage with boundless energy.
Warmth and humour are key ingredients. Eleanor’s maternal indignation that the troops aren’t given appropriate woollen socks is swiftly channeled into a policy change. Her wry impersonations of class affectations and the drawn out vowels of Queen Mary are particularly enjoyable. Equally, the wistful rendering of a train journey she spent in the arms of her life-long friend, journalist Lorena Hickok, who showed her ‘a world of love,’ shine fresh light on Eleanor’s character and the layers behind the political brand she created. While the portrayal of Eleanor’s later-life and disillusionment with US policy is not sufficiently grounded in earlier scenes, Lucy Skilbeck’s [no relation] direction is intelligent and vivid. Emma Laxton’s sound design is sensitive and well paced and Mrs Roosevelt’s 75 minute flying visit flies by.
First lady drama is first class
Political wives are in the spotlight this month, but Samantha, Miriam, Justine and Kirsten (Frau Farage) don’t hold a collective candle to Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘the First Lady of the World’ and a spunky, contrarian social equalizer who wasn’t at ease playing second fiddle in the White House. She was, perhaps, a Hillary of her time.
Alison Skilbeck’s beautifully balanced monologue Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is tender and punchy in equal measure. It mirrors Eleanor’s political life with her personal one, suggesting her public loyalty to a beloved but philandering husband (hello again, Hillary) later crippled with polio, and masking unfulfilled sapphic desires of her own.
In 1942 Mrs R makes the hazardous journey across the Atlantic by flying boat, in order to rally American troops in Europe. Eleanor comments slyly on her meetings with Queen Mary, Winston Churchill and a splendidly Joyce Grenfell-esq volunteer at the WVS — each pinned in a swift and sharp caricature. She is moved by the self-sacrifice and team spirit of the British people, annoyed at the segregation of black and white American troops in the Liverpool docks, and remonstrates with General Eisenhower for not sending the woollen socks they all urgently need.
It’s fortunate Maureen Lipman is busy with Harvey, or she’d be snagging this bravura piece as her own, but Skilbeck (who also wrote this) holds your attention throughout and with far less artifice. Okay, she possibly puts on and takes off her coat too many times largely to indicate whether she’s indoors or out, but the characterization constantly brings you in to the narrative.
There are a few other minor snags: the background sound is too muted, and there are missed opportunities for underscoring the story with music from the period, for example when Marian Anderson, the black contralto was denied use of Constitution Hall by the committee of the DAR, not only did Eleanor resign, she staged Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial for free in front of a 75,000-strong crowd. That deserves a soundtrack.
Reviewed by Jonny Fox
MRS ROOSEVELT FLIES TO LONDON
With a former First Lady now setting her cap at the US Presidency, Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London provides a timely reminder about the life and loves of a woman who was to become known as ‘the First Lady of the World’.
Examining the life and career of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the (then) President of the United States, this one-hander focuses on an extended WW2 sojourn in England that allows Alison Skilbeck’s indomitable creation to muse over her life and the events which affected everyone at the time and in the years that followed.
From her relentlessly Panglossian standpoint, the world assumes a mantle of unlimited possibilities – even during such challenging circumstances as her recollections of the Cuban Missile crisis, which almost brought an end to the world and political and social ideals she had fought so determinedly to establish.
Granted official access to personal letters and diaries, Alison Skilbeck’s play paints a seductively comprehensive picture of Mrs Roosevelt’s life, with intimate glimpses of the wife, mother, and ceaseless campaigner for blacks, soldiers (and black soldiers). The advancement of women and their rights – including her espousal of their enfranchisement when it was both a dangerous and socially unacceptable cause – were an equally important element within her purview.
Blessed with boundless energy that proved a curse to all who tried to keep pace with her relentless schedule, she accepted early on the sacrifices required to keep her Sapphic liaisons out of the public eye. During her wartime return to London as a semi-official Ambassador of the President (as a teenager, she had boarded at Allenwood Academy, where she was deeply swayed by its feminist headmistress, Marie Souvestre), her influence was far-reaching and deep-rooted, particularly among women, whose abilities had been largely overlooked until their steely reserves of character began to prove invaluable to the war effort.
Yes, she could be a rabble-rouser when required: a woman of the people, ‘popular’ in every sense, her influence extended to the highest echelons of power on both sides of the Atlantic and was such that it eventually resulted in the creation of a Declaration of Human Rights.
But she could be as tenacious as she was tender, supporting an incapacitated husband in his bid for the Presidency even though he had been struck down by polio. And, like Hilary Clinton and other First Ladies before and since, she turned a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities.
Her complex personality is convincingly etched in a script peppered with wit and humanity as Alison Skilbeck’s warmly enthusiastic portrayal seduces us into a world that remains largely beyond our ken.
It is a finely-nuanced performance under the direction of Lucy Skilbeck and yet, despite the co-incidence of a mutual surname, the two women are un-related and united only by an intimate, almost intuitively familial, bond by what is required to make the text sing.
Jane Heather provides an economical setting where a chair, a microphone, a hatbox, a trunk and coloured bunting criss-crossing the stage are the only props. The effectiveness of Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is also greatly enhanced by Emma Laxton’s evocative sound plan and the lighting design of Mark Dymock in a space which proves ideal for such an engrossing pocket history. Sandwiched between the 70th anniversary of the death of Franklin D Roosevelt on April 12 and the 70th anniversary of VE Day on May 8, it could hardly bemore timely.
By Clive Burton
MRS ROOSEVELT FLIES TO LONDON – King’s Head Theatre, London.
April 15, 2015
Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary woman; in Mrs Roosevelt Flies To London, Alison Skilbeck has written a piece which conveys some of the reasons, events and actions that made her the indefatigable longest serving First Lady of the United States of America. Skilbeck also performs this one woman show, and the wealth of research undertaken is evident in the richness of her portrayal of Mrs Roosevelt.
Primarily centred around Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to wartime Britain in 1942, Skilbeck creates an episodic piece of storytelling that time travels throughout her life. We meet her first as a dying 78 year old woman, incoherent and frustrated, and refusing (and hiding) pills. We then catapult back to wartime London, her stay at Buckingham Palace (where it appears that sprouts were eaten at nearly every meal due to rationing) and around the country – meeting Land Girls who were previously London’s fastest typists, and “our boys”, soldiers both British and American.
Although this gives us an interesting insight into Mrs Roosevelt’s life and this dangerous and inspired visit, this format can make the narrative somewhat difficult to follow: at times firing off at tangents, honing in on her unhappy childhood, devoid of fun after both of her parents die, and skipping ahead to her marriage with Franklin D Roosevelt, her deep and profound friendship (and love) with journalist Lorena Hickock and the lessons learnt from her inspirational headmistress, the feminist Marie Souvestre. Yet all of this information is in itself riveting, particularly as Skilbeck has been given special permission by Nancy Roosevelt Ireland to use extracts from Eleanor Roosevelt’s diary and writings, including her letters.
Skilbeck also touches upon the remarkable political and humanitarian work carried out by Mrs Roosevelt after her husband’s death, overseeing the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and continually campaigning and speaking out for women, about racial issues and for humanity. Mrs Roosevelt Flies To London shows her to be a talented and complex individual, not just as the wife of the President – but a person with a strong mind, determination and an unfailing dedication to restoring the world to peace.
This is an empowering and inspirational piece of Theatre; at its most basic level it tells us multiple stories from one person’s long and amazing life in politics, and at its most complex, it is a powerful mix of betrayal, survival and determination. An interesting play, recommended particularly for a different point of view on some very familiar British and American political figures.
By Emily Jones
When a piece succeeds in a small space, it’s like everyone in the room is sharing and savouring a secret. That’s certainly the case with Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. A lone performer recreates a cast of dozens from Queen Mary to Churchill. At the heart of it all is the doughty American First Lady letting us into her innermost thoughts during a visit to wartime England.
Alison Skilbeck both writes and performs Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London, a piece that is ultimately an examination of the couple’s unconventional marriage. The crippled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) cheated on Eleanor after she’d borne him five children, and they never shared a bedroom again. What followed were discreet relationships with both partners favouring other women. Through it all they remained devoted to each other like the couple in Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path, from which Eleanor recreates the turning point: being married, and knowing the other person is there no matter what’s happening on the periphery, is what drives their visions and keeps them strong.
I retained what I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt long enough to get my Modern History GCSE. A fragment remains: active in her own right long after FDR’s death, she brokered and delivered the Unilateral Declaration of Human Rights. You don’t need to know this, however, to enjoy Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Skilbeck’s elegant knitting together of people and places and facts, with some material taken directly from Eleanor’s letters, puts all the pieces in place.
In conclusion: Directed by Lucy Skilbeck (no relation), the tiniest actions in this 75 minute play are instructive and the understated, prosaic, and humorous delivery is a delight. Having entered the King’s Head with interest but no great expectation, I left teary-eyed. And it wasn’t because the theatre is so small and short of funds they were doing a bucket collection on the way out…
Reviewed by Shyama Perera