Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London explores both the public and hidden life of one of the most extraordinary women of the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman beset by deep personal insecurities and tragedy, but one who never lost her passionate belief in the strength of the human spirit. Granted special permission to use Eleanor’s writings, Alison Skilbeck’s new one-woman show is a portrait of the woman who fought tirelessly for human rights for all and did so much to shape the role of the First Lady in the post war era and beyond.
This outstanding one woman show begins simply, with Eleanor Roosevelt (Alison Skilbeck) in old age huddled under a cover in 1962 as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatens the peace that she contributed so much to. As she reflects on the very real risk of another war we are whisked back to 1942 when she made a visit to war torn Britain to visit US troops and to see how the British, most importantly the women, were coping. In the course of her visit she stayed at (the bomb damaged and freezing) Buckingham Palace, Chequers and stately homes; visited air force bases, factories, farms and bombsites.
The wife of president Franklin D Roosevelt, Eleanor was a passionate advocate for racial justice and one of the key forces behind the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She supported her husband’s campaign for presidency and was a public figure in her own right with a regular newspaper column ‘My Day’. She challenged the prevailing attitudes to ‘negroes’ as they were still known, which didn’t always make her popular as her husband needed the southern vote. She certainly wasn’t content to stay in the background and showed the world that the first lady could be an important part of American politics.
Throughout the visit (and her life) she wrote letters to her husband, family and friends as well as her newspaper column. Alison Skilbeck was given privileged access to these by her estate to develop the play.
The title is misleading – Mrs Roosevelt might fly to London in 1942 but the story stretches much more widely than that short period. In the course of 75 minutes we follow her back and forth as she tells us of her childhood, marriage, loves, life as a political activist and wife interspersed with acerbic observations of British politicians, admiration for the working women she meets, speeches and radio broadcasts. The piece is meticulously researched. Skilbeck portrays her as tireless campaigner who, despite her privileged upbringing, had the common touch and revelled in every encounter – with the possible exception of Mr Churchill.
However, it isn’t all fearless public figure, the play explores her private life and loves, her disappointments, her insecurities; it is an entire autobiography and a completely captivating one. Not one word is superfluous, not one word wasted. That it also celebrates the ordinary working women that she met and provides glimpses into the government and royal family at the time adds to the depth (and often the humour) of the story.
As performer as well as writer Skilbeck is completely in control of her material and inhabits rather than performs the character. Physically she is very suited to the part – Eleanor was tall and statuesque, her awkwardness of movement captured perfectly. Her performance is subtle and nuanced throughout spanning the reflective, the brisk and the gleeful – she makes much of the accompanying press pack struggling to keep up with her relentless programme.
Throughout Eleanor addresses us directly as though we are recipients of one of her many letters, pausing only to play out a scene to better show us more of a visit or meeting. It gives the piece an intimacy, supported by the compact nature of the Baillie room, we are sitting just out of sight but privy to her every thought.
Director Lucy Skilbeck (no relation) has applied the lightest of touches to the piece, making use of all of the space, providing shifts in levels and approach such as the retro microphone for excerpts from broadcasts. The sound design is subtle, the lighting never obtrusive and serving to underline rather than lead the story as it unfolds.
The 75 minutes passes in a blink. You will leave smiling – and feeling that you have just had a private audience with an extraordinary woman.