Political wives are in the spotlight this month: but Samantha, Miriam, Justine and Kirsten (Frau Farage) couldn’t collectively hold a candle to Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘the First Lady of the World’ – a spunky, contrarian social equalizer who might have championed Franklin’s ‘New Deal’ but wasn’t so much at ease playing second fiddle in the White House. A Hillary of her time, perhaps.

Alison Skilbeck’s beautifully balanced monologue 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 masked unfulfilled Sapphic desires of her own.

We dart back and forth across the years, but in 1942 Mrs R makes the hazardous journey across the Atlantic by flying boat to rally American troops in Europe and comments slyly on her meetings with Queen Mary, or Winston Churchill or a splendidly Joyce Grenfell-ish lady 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 holds your attention throughout and with far less artifice. She 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.

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 who 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, for a crowd of 75,000. That deserves a soundtrack.

 

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London continues at the King’s Head Theatre Islington until 9 May.  Tickets from the theatre website.  We saw this play on a press ticket from David Burns PR.  

This review originally written for Londonist.com