First Lady Drama Is First Class

By Johnny Fox Last edited 37 months ago
First Lady Drama Is First Class ★★★★☆ 4

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Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

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.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London continues at the King's Head Theatre in Islington until 9 May. Tickets from the theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.  

Last Updated 16 April 2015