views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London
The King's Head Theatre
15th April 2015


Alison Skilbeck as Eleanor Roosevelt

Photography provided by The King's Head Theatre

Behind every strong man is an even stronger woman, or so they used to say. These days, I'd like to think there's more equality than that, but Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London revolves around the life of the formidable Eleanor Roosevelt, who got hitched more than 100 years ago when that phrase could very much hold true. Written and performed by Alison Skilbeck, this 75-minute whirlwind through ER's life is a real education on a woman who initially supported her husband's political career, and then later successfully carved one out for herself.

We meet ER as an old lady of 78, more switched-on than she can physically communicate and very much aware that her time is coming to an end. Being on your deathbed - well, death chair - can often prompt nostalgia, and ER takes us through the best of times and the worst of times, from her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer to her own exceedingly close relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok. Skilbeck throws off and on her coat and hat as she moves through different periods, and even though you do always want a one-person show to keep the pace up, it can make the storyline confusing. We always know where we're going - back to that chair - but it's the in-between mad gallop that isn't always easy to follow, driven by ER's seemingly endless energy.

Lucy Skilbeck (who despite the surname, is no relation to the performer) uses bunting to evoke a wartime era and also direct all attention to the centre stage where ER regales us with her stories. It's a simple set, but framed strikingly. Dressed sharply in red and black, ER's outfit mirrors the colours of poppies, such a quintessentially English memorial to those lost in combat. Her accent too is overwhelmingly English for the majority of the production, making it easy to forget she's a visitor from across the Pond rather than some kind of forces sweetheart. However, the fact that she seems so readily integrated into life here during her trip of 1942 really brings out the character's warmth. Emma Laxton's sound design of radio broadcasts does help with the setting, but at times, a bit of music wouldn't go amiss, further establishing the time and place.

Initially we're presented with an unstoppable force, but we do catch a glimpse of sadness as ER's personal life starts to fall back. And there's a tenderness and exuberance as we find out about ER and Hickok's growing friendship. It's not clear from the performance whether this is purely platonic or not, but the history books are equally vague, with the writer allowing the gaps to be filled by our own imaginations, rather than creating her own facts. There's always an element of fiction to a biographical play, but the playwright has been remarkably respectful in her approach.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London is a touching tribute to the "First Lady of the World", and it's evident that in playing ER, Alison has realised something of an ambition. You may not leave armed with all the facts she's carefully researched about the woman, but you will get a sense for what she believes to be her personality. It's a giddy, fast-paced and triumphant ride through the 20th century.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London opened on 14th April and runs until 9th May 2015 at the King's Head Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

Follow us on Twitter

Leicester Square







performing arts