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.
box office http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com to 9 May