Category Archives: Theatre

Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical

Bend It Like Beckham won the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical  in January 2016, just a few short days after announcing the production would finish at the Phoenix Theatre on March 5th. The world premiere took place on 15th May 2015 and I watched this joyous show last June and again this past weekend at the Phoenix. On each occasion my husband and I were both enthralled and elated by the wonderful combination of music and dance, which told the mixed tale of sport, culture and dreams. Somehow the production managed to infuse both eastern and western cultures together into a delightful and powerful show, that packed an emotional punch with an amusing under current.

The two football protégés are Jules an English girl from a one parent family and Jess Bhamra the youngest daughter of a Sikh family. Jess is obsessed with David Beckham whilst Jules admires Mia Hamm the US soccer star, and both have their sporting heroes adorning bedroom walls. Jules already plays for a local women’s team (the Harriers) and having spotted Jess’s potential invites her to a trial. They quickly form a formidable partnership on the pitch but Jess has to lie about having a part-time job to continue training, having incurred the wrath of her parents who forbade her to play any longer. So an opportunity for Jess to play in Germany sees her torn between trying to be a dutiful daughter and being true to herself. This is beautifully portrayed at the end of the first half in a dream like sequence. On one side Pinky tells her sister Jess she owes her parents to be dutiful because they have worked so hard, and an eastern dance/music element dominates. On the other side Tony a good friend of Jess tells her she has to take her chance, be herself and show what she can do, and here a western music/sport element prevails. Neither side come together but as Jess clearly makes up her mind to travel to Germany she dreams of playing with David Beckham.

In the first half both mothers are at a loss to understand their daughters and sing the same lament “Tough Love”. Each desperately wants the best for their offspring, yet the girls both feel totally misunderstood and angrily sulk in their room. I found myself annoyed with Mrs Bhamra because she was so entrenched in the traditional ways of her culture and how things were done, she found it virtually impossible to see beyond that and acknowledge that perhaps the world of opportunities for girls was changing in 2001. She and her husband want Jess to go to university but no doubt to make her a better prospect for a future husband, not to make their daughter feel more fulfilled. Jules Mum Paula on the other hand tries so hard to be supportive to her child but usually has the effort thrown back in her face. How I wanted to tell Jules how damned lucky she was to have that kind of unstinting support.

At the start of the second half the audience see that Jess and Jules are effectively two sides of the same coin. Jess sings of being told she is a dreamer because she looks beyond her culture and the traditional expectations of her parents. Jules sings of being told she is a loser for hoping to transcend her class and its limitations. Both travel to Germany and triumph in their game and whilst out celebrating Jess kisses the football coach Joe, not realising that Jules is madly in love with him. This results in a major argument between the girls in the airport back home, witnessed by Jules Mum waving an English flag to celebrate the team win. Believing she has seen a lover’s tiff Paula concludes her daughter Jules must be gay! Jess meanwhile having fallen out with her friend must now go back to her parents, return to being a dutiful daughter helping with her sister’s wedding arrangements, and face the prospect of never playing football again. The mournful traditional wedding song heralds a daughter leaving her old family life to start a new one with her husband. This hauntingly beautiful music is reflected in Jess sadly sitting in her bedroom rolling up her football posters and bagging them for the bin. It looks like something has died in her too. The following day is Pinky Bhamra’s wedding day and also the day of a football final for the Harriers team. An American scout is to be there to watch Jules and Jess play, however Jess is at the temple for the wedding ceremony and looks thoroughly miserable in the process. There is a smashing moment here when Jess sings about her love of the game but her duty to her family is more important. Then Jules sings of missing her friend, Joe about his love for Jess and her amazing football talent, and Tony encourages his friend to slip away from the celebrations to play the second half of the football final. This quartet piece is very striking in its heartfelt interwoven emotion. When the main wedding ceremony is over Mr Bhamra agrees to allow Jess to play in the match if it would make her smile. She dashes off to make the game arriving just after the audience see a funny scene between Jules and her Mum. Paula dressed in an outfit for Ascot turns up to support her girl, lets it be known she’s aware of Jules “preferences” after all there is “a cup for every saucer” and waves a gay flag with pride. Mortified Jules laughingly reassures her Mum that she has only had eyes for Joe not Jess, but finally realises just how much her Mum does care about and love her.

As the wedding celebrations continue we see the football team get ready and warm up for their game. The football clearly represents the western street music culture whilst the wedding depicts the eastern traditional culture. But unlike in the first half where the torment of Jess meant they kept apart in this half a seamless fusion occurs. Both sides merge into one harmonious unified body of movement and it is wondrous to witness. Having her father’s blessing to play the game makes Jess whole again and this symbolically represents that epiphany.

The team from Southall win the final thanks to an effort from Jess and both girls are offered a football scholarship to attend college and play in the US for a year. It looks like the Bhamra’s won’t allow Jess to go citing the prejudice they faced when they first arrived in England. But Jess retorted that was their road, but things can be better if you work for change and her appeal to them is heard. She will be travelling with Jules to the US and everyone gathers at the airport to see them off on their big adventure.

The music is infectious in this show as I witnessed in the London Tube station on Saturday night, when four separate groups of people along the platform were singing the same tune. I’d heard it on the escalators as well and walking along the street too. It is such an uplifting show you can’t help but smile and everyone was wearing a broad grin leaving the theatre. It is hoped the show will tour around the UK and travel to India. As the ultimate mood enhancer I recommend Bend It Like Beckham a piece of theatrical magic.

Betty and Becks enjoyed the show. Image credit abmj70
Betty and Becks enjoyed the show. Image credit abmj70

The Snow Queen on Stage

This festive season (7th-23rd December) Wild Ivy Theatre are performing The Snow Queen at Above the Arts Great Newport Street London. I watched their delightful interpretation of this classic story by Hans Christian Andersen on Thursday 17th December and for 45 minutes was immersed in the simplest most embryonic form of theatrical story telling.

Above the Arts only opened in March 2015 and is a sixty seat auditorium on the first floor above the Arts Theatre. The venue is rather like a large living room where scenery can be placed around the space, with open benches for viewers situated within the same area. This results in an immersive feeling where the audience can easily become an integral part of the performance. The constraints of a tradition theatre setting are removed, resulting in a much more free feeling experience. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a perfect way of introducing young children to theatre performance, by making it a less daunting prospect.

The four actors of the theatre group inhabited all the major characters with great aplomb. Gerda, Kai, Mother, Father, Maid, the Snow Queen, Reindeer, Raven and a fleeting show from the White Fox were all brought to life with a great energy and a lovely sense of fun. Every exaggerated body movement, facial expression and voice change brought storytelling to an elevated level. Stage props were minimal and just sufficient to give a setting context and the costumes simple, basic yet convincing. As there were only four actors and 45 minutes of action these facts helped guarantee a seamless transition between characters to progress the story. Sometimes less is definitely more and it also meant that the imagination of this big kid was fully engaged, for example I chuckled inwardly when the owl voice-overs came on as I envisaged Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) sitting wide eyed in a tree!

After the show I made a point of telling the actors how much I enjoyed their performance. They mentioned that some artistic licence was incorporated within their storyline, and I shall have to re-read the book to remind myself of the nuances of the tale. But the adaptation and setting it was performed in took me back to my five year old self marvelling at a picture book delivered by Santa. The innocence and wonder of an enchanting story that had my imagination fired on all cylinders as a child came flooding back forty years later watching the Wild Ivy Theatre. For that I thank them dearly.

There are three favourite stories I have always associated with Christmas. This production means I have now seen them all performed on stage. In 2013 I saw Hansel and Gretel performed by the Scottish Ballet in Glasgow. My love of this story I believe comes from seeing it as my first pantomime around 1977. The Alistair Sim black and white film A Christmas Carol has always kept Charles Dickens classic tale close to my heart, although I only read the book for the first time in Christmas week 2014! To my delight I watched a one-man show of A Christmas Carol performed by Simon Callow in the larger Arts Theatre in 2012. He was sensational making every expression; word and slight movement speak volumes. I thought at the time I was seeing a mature actor at the height of his powers give the ultimate theatrical master class. In a similar way Wild Ivy Theatre gave an acting master class in the purest storytelling form. The actors may be in the early part of their careers but if this is a glimpse of their potential I’m sure they will go far. Having seen many theatre shows in my time to think of Wild Ivy Theatre and Simon Callow in the same sentence is praise indeed from me. See a Wild Ivy Theatre production if you can it will be worth the effort.

The Snow Queen poster. Image credit abmj70
The Snow Queen poster. Image credit  abmj70

An Inspector Calls

On Thursday 16th October 2015 I went to the Regent Theatre in Hanley to watch a touring production of J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls. Alas by the end of it I was somewhat confused, a bit angry and didn’t really care very much about the crux of the story. There seemed to be so much socio/political subtext going on through the stage production, that (for me) the heart and essence of the text was lost!

I have never read J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls nor can I recall seeing the 1954 Alastair Sim film either. But I did see a stage production ten years ago and although the details are gone, I still remember the “wow what an ending to the story” feeling. Presumably the modern style of interpretation was there in my first viewing, but at the time I knew nothing at all about the context of An Inspector Calls. Armed with new knowledge and the memory of a superb traditional BBC TV adaptation from a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing the play with a fresh perspective. Sadly from the start all I could do was see “ticking boxes” to fulfil several bits of criteria deemed essential for the underlying sub-text.

It began with WWII air-raid sirens and a little boy listening to a radio, so I thought that the setting was going to be in the 1940s. When the curtain finally lifted and the house interior/occupants dress was revealed, it was obviously 1912 the year the play was set in. As the drama progressed and the WWII motifs remained I was utterly baffled, especially as the sirens, radio music and sounds of bombing at times drowned out the actors voices, as they did not use any means of amplification. Particularly bad was the dialogue at the beginning when the Birling party were inside their enclosed “Wendy house mansion on stilts”. I immediately thought they would have to open up the set for anyone to be able to hear properly. In my usual “cheap seat” at the back of the stalls, at times I’ve had to concentrate hard to follow a story, as the Regent does not have the best of acoustics. But with the actors having no amplification and the type of stage setting involved I must have lost about 20% of the dialogue.

So with different eras seemingly being juxtaposed together I couldn’t help but think “that shouldn’t be there” far too many times. The Birling’s interior telephone became an outdoor telephone box (I don’t think available in 1912), the dining room interrogation found itself on the hard urban streets of a bombed out city, the WWII radio had no place in a 1912 parlour. The manner of Inspector Goole reminded me of Jack Regan in “The Sweeney”, especially when he rolled up his shirt sleeves and threw his jacket into the gutter and shouted most of the time. Eric Birling the errant son running on with his shirt-tails hanging out and a bit wild eyed made me think of someone coming out of a night-club, not a man having had too much to drink at a home dinner party. And the violence shown between son/mother and father/son reminded me of episodes of “Dallas”! Obviously my mind wandered from the plot quite often, partly as a way of trying to comprehend what I was seeing but mainly because I felt totally disengaged from the story. When I get into a play I almost become part of it and really care deeply about the characters. But this time I just felt remote from the whole thing, perhaps because this modern adaptation was trying too hard to be all things to all people!

Much discussion took place with my husband Rob afterwards in the pub and the “era-mix” caused great confusion. From Google we discovered that Priestley wrote the play in 1945 but the story was set in April 1912, so it was a kind of vague though unsatisfactory explanation why both decades prevailed on stage. From the program there was a hinted suggestion that the rejection of Churchill in the polls after WWII could have been reflected in Priestley’s play. But I think that’s reading too much into that, but I could see that the class barriers that began to be questioned during the First World War were even more battered (though not dead) by the end of the Second World War.

I was far more interested to discover the play was set in APRIL of 1912 the same month as the Titanic disaster. The irony of that was not lost on me at all, the rich inhabiting the top decks having a better chance of survival than the poor on lower decks. And the gentry mantra of “women and children” must be on a life raft first, does not equate with pregnant Eva Smith/Daisy Renton being cast aside and effectively killed by the same upper class because no one threw her a life belt. It is also the era of the suffragette movement and Eva/Daisy initially fell on hard times through asking for a pay rise and going on strike. Her hard difficult struggle to make ends meet is a direct reflection of the harsh treatment by the authorities of women fighting for more equality. So when patriarch Arthur Birling complains vociferously at the harsh/less reverential questioning directed by the Inspector toward the Birling women, the irony and hypocrisy of the situation is all too evident.

The “Wendy house mansion on stilts” perfectly emphasised both the shaky ground the upper-class society was built upon in 1912 and visually separated the comfortable elite from the desperate majority. Inspector Goole’s line of questioning unravelled the fabric that kept the Birling facade intact and the First World War helped shake the foundations as well. When an onstage explosion literally brought the house down, I guess it was a metaphorical representation of an equalling in society. Both the mother and son at one point were lying in the gutter apparently broken by their deeds. Yet when it looks like no suicide has been made by Eva/Daisy, the audience saw Mrs Sybil Birling rising slowly then becoming more assured in her manner. The old-world order had not been upset after all, which was a call for celebration. Only the young Birlings’ Eric and Sheila seemed traumatised by the whole affair and felt any kind of remorse for their actions. They realised whether Eva/Daisy had committed suicide or not, all of them at the dinner party were culpable for their actions in bringing about her predicament. The ending of course finds Arthur Birling being informed that a death has now occurred and the police will be arriving to question them. Everything they had been told was a prediction of what would happen that night.

I discerned from my program a notion that only a modern innovative rendition of An Inspector Calls could bring the themes from the story into the present day. A traditional portrayal of the play could only make the Birling family seem like a relic from a bygone era, something from the history books. I disagree completely with this assumption having seen the recent BBC TV adaptation, which was excellent. It took place in a resplendent Georgian dining room with characters acting perfectly in dress, manner and behaviour of the times. The Inspector Goole of this version was quietly forceful with a beautifully measured manner and a pall of sadness about him. To me he was utterly believable, especially as he made me think of the narrator in the film The Book Thief, who was the voice of death like Goole himself. Being set properly in the context of 1912 magnifies the heart and soul of the play; it does not detract from it. The Titanic disaster, Suffragette movement, World War One and the ideals/wrongs of that time nourish and nurture the story. For me the traditional setting reinforced the themes from the play and I had tears in my eyes at the end of the TV drama. Alas I was a bit angry and rather cross having watched the stage production of An Inspector Calls. I’m sorry to say the themes that transcend the generations doesn’t work as a smorgasbord stage setting.

Theatre programme. Image credit abmj
Theatre programme. Image credit abmj

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler: Noel Coward Theatre

Nicole Kidman put in a star performance as Rosalind Franklin the scientist who developed the world famous x-ray diffraction photograph, the pivotal piece of information that helped reveal the structure of DNA. Franklin was undoubtedly a pioneer in her field but never received the accolade of having her name alongside Crick, Watson and Wilkins, who received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962. In fact Rosalind didn’t even live to see the sixties, having passed away in 1958 from cancer which she contracted possibly as a result of her x-ray diffraction work.

As I took my seat to watch a performance on the evening of Saturday 26th September I didn’t quite know what to expect, although I knew the basics of the story and the photograph itself very well. Nicole Kidman was utterly convincing as the brilliant, driven, fastidious and downright prickly Dr Rosalind Franklin, giving the character the necessary gravitas and emotional brittleness to drive the story which begins in France. Franklin is saying au revoir to her French colleagues, as she is about to take up a prestigious post with Dr Maurice Wilkins at Kings College London working on DNA.

On arrival at the subterranean laboratory of Kings College the conflict between Wilkins and Franklin begins virtually immediately. Wilkins bumbling English ways where his efforts to be nice are totally shredded by the abrasive Franklin, eventually results in them not being on speaking terms. Franklin as a Jewish woman may have felt it necessary to fight against everything to be taken even remotely seriously, especially working in the male dominated Christian created King’s College. After all she was living in post-war 1950s England where women stayed at home, had children and remained subservient to their husbands. So Franklin in the play works longer hours than her colleagues, has literally no life other than her work, and has an even stiffer upper lip than her English male counterparts. Unsurprisingly she is not the easiest person to get along with, and any genuine concern shown for her well-being is brushed aside. The scene where her PhD student is vainly trying to encourage care whilst maintaining the x-ray diffraction equipment is particularly poignant and my alarm here was palpable. For all Rosalind’s care and cautiousness at interpreting results, the play suggests impatience at delays, a consequence which could result in potentially deadly mistakes being made.

Crick and Watson the other main protagonists of the story are in a way the twin equivalent of Wilkins and Franklin. Crick doesn’t quite have the awkward bumbling manner of Wilkins but he heads his group at Cambridge as Wilkins does at Kings. Crick struck me as a facilitator who let or made things happen, whilst his post-doc student Watson seemed the driving force behind the groups work. James Watson was the same and yet opposite to Rosalind Franklin. Both scientists were brilliant at their work, driven by an insatiable inner force, with a tunnel-vision approach in trying to get their goal. They differed in that Franklin appeared to be cautious, had scant interest in other peoples “misguided theory” publications and worked by choice, virtually alone and shared none of her results. Watson seemed almost reckless at times, made it his mission to know what anyone was doing in the DNA field, and hoovered up bits of information whenever he could, to use at a later date. Watson seemed to happily bounce ideas off his supervisor Crick, who in turn went along with theories in more than one attempt to model the DNA structure.

The actor playing Watson showed remarkable guile and cunning whilst appearing to chat amiably about work in Maurice Wilkins office. In turn Wilkins naivety came through when he innocently showed Watson the best x-ray photograph to date. The beginnings of unravelling the DNA structure clearly took place at that moment. During the play an illuminated square on the stage floor was used to refer to the DNA structural model, the audience just had to use their imagination. But I witnessed and photographed the Guinness World Record certified DNA model construction by Keele University, so it was easy for me.

DNA Day from March 2002. Image credit abmj
              DNA Day from March 2002. Image credit abmj

Anna Ziegler’s writing throughout was exceptional with a touch of whimsy sprinkled occasionally in the dialogue, a case of “what might have been” scenarios. At these points Nicole Kidman was able to give her character more light and shade creating a more rounded and likeable persona. A scene on yearning is beautifully almost poetically phrased, where Rosalind for a moment, yields to an inner set of emotions that are perpetually kept in check. You could see Kidman’s face illuminate and the character for a split second bloom, before withering again. The effect is devastating particularly as the scene is used as a vehicle to introduce Franklin’s cancer diagnosis. At the end of the play there is juxtaposition between a character dying in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and hope staying alive. Rosalind and Maurice Wilkins are discussing a Laurence Olivier film and neither of them can remember the actress who played alongside him. Prophetically Franklin says “She just never put herself forward” which was also Rosalind’s epitaph. I was biting my lip at that point trying very hard not to cry, and a visibly moved Nicole Kidman could be seen brushing away tears as she accepted the audience’s applause.

I got the impression that Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed to it quite quickly, whilst still part of Maurice Wilkins group in the early fifties. However this is where a little artistic licence has been used to keep the integrity of the play within the realms of Kings College, as the story gets a little complicated otherwise. Rosalind Franklin left Kings College and relocated to Birkbeck in March 1953 where she worked on the structure of viruses and RNA. The stipulation of her move prevented Franklin from continuing work in the DNA structure field (either by contract design or personal choice). It was whilst at Birkbeck in the autumn of 1956 that Rosalind discovered she had ovarian cancer, and she passed away on April 16th 1958 aged just 37.

Rosalind Franklin appears to have been the ultimate contradiction, both a woman ahead of her time but a product of her time. She refused to play the politics game in the lab viewing herself as an equal to Wilkins, not an assistant of his within the group. Whilst most women remained in the home, she worked in a male dominated field and was as good if not better than her counterparts, a true pioneer for working women of the future. Yet having been raised in an era where women were seen and not heard, Rosalind never ever put herself forward. Her almost pathological need to be absolutely sure about something before considering putting ideas into the public domain, and her reluctance to share results undoubtedly stems from her upbringing. That inability to take the leap of faith that science sometimes demands was sadly Franklin’s Achilles heel.

This play provides a unique glimpse into a pivotal moment in scientific history, as told through the story of Rosalind Franklin, a woman who has never received the accolades she truly deserved.

Photograph 51 limited season until 21st November 2015.

Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 program. Image credit abmj
Nicole Kidman in Photograph51 program. Image credit abmj

Last of the Duty Free by Eric Chappell: Regent Theatre Hanley

On Thursday May 22nd 2014 I took my seat amongst a small but appreciative audience to see an old friend come to life again on the stage. As a huge fan of the 1980’s comedy Duty Free I was delighted to see three of the original cast reprise their roles to advance the story some 30 years. Keith Barron (David), Gwen Taylor (Amy) and Neil Stacy (Robert) were joined by Carol Royale who played Linda. She stepped into the role beautifully when Joanna Van Gyseghem was unable to join the stage show due to other work commitments. With the old character of Carlos the waiter being around as well, the cast was dyed so to speak for an evening of spectacular misunderstandings and gentle fun.

The simple stage setting was lovely, bright and cheery with the obvious topical Spanish guitar music occasionally in the background. It certainly transported me away from the grey skies, torrential rain and cool evening air of Stoke, to the balmy climate of the San Remo Hotel in Spain. The props were designed in such a way that you could easily envisage a pathway down to the beach, a balcony or a sun-bathing area.

The play begins with the rendezvous of David Pearce and Linda Cochran at the San Remo for what is hoped to be a clandestine holiday together, although they are in separate rooms, highlighting once again David’s working class and Linda’s upper-middle class backgrounds. To be together Linda is taking advantage of her husband Robert being away on business, whilst David has spun a tall tale to his wife Amy about accompanying a friend on holiday. Both David and Linda are clearly enamoured by one another and the idea of “romantic love”, away from their respective safe, reliable and boring partners. They are photographed together by a young honeymoon couple Jeremy & Clare, who see them as the ideal example of being together for many years!!!! So confusion reigns supreme when Amy Pearce and Robert Cochran arrive unexpectedly to scupper the dream lover’s plans. Added to this are the reactions of Carlos who sees everything but understands nothing (or does he)? This cocktail of chaos, innuendo and misunderstandings ensures some genuine laugh out loud moments.

Keith Barron’s voice has a marvellous resonance to it that means the slightest inflection of a word can give a sentence a whole new meaning. Apart from the shock of white hair he is just the same whilst Gwen Taylor hardly looks a day older than her Duty Free TV days. Her “dead-pan” no nonsense delivery of words was just as devastating and funny as before. Neil Stacy again hardly looks any different and he delivered his lines with that posh panache that can be endearingly funny or incredibly irritating. However the way the script was written there is no way you could be irritated. The character of Robert Cochran seems to be a typical well-to-do Brit with a deep suspicion of “Johnny Foreigner”, and the description of Robert’s work company and the litany of take-overs surrounding it, was absolutely spot on with how business works these days. Eric Chappell’s incisive writing allows you to laugh at things that you may not always laugh at, because he can highlight brilliantly the absurdity of a situation. Carol Royale was terrific as Linda, and her exercise routine on the balcony was reminiscent of a Jane Fonda workout and pure class.

The honeymoon couple Jeremy and Clare who misunderstand the older couples’ situation were great. In fact I couldn’t help but think they were a blend of the four main characters. Jeremy had the vague hen-pecked aura of David and the posh pompous manner of Robert. Clare on the other hand had the girl-like idealised notion about love similar to Linda, but with the dead-pan realistic delivery of Amy. In some ways they could have been the off-spring of them all. Now there’s thought!!!

Touring British Theatres from April 15th until September 6th 2014.

Last of the Duty Free Promotion Poster
Last of the Duty Free Promotion Poster

One Woman, One Man in War

The woman referred to is Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt the First Lady of the United States during World War Two, and the man referred to is Simon Weston badly injured in the Falklands War. During an overnight visit to London, I became even more aware of the stories involving these two people caught up in two separate wars forty years apart.

Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt

In the small intimate setting of The Kings Head Pub Theatre, I attended the last performance of the one woman play Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Actress Alison Skilbeck had crafted this dramatic story having had access to Eleanor Roosevelt’s diaries. She performed all the characters within the play (including Churchill and The Queen Mother) with minimal props, but with an uncanny accuracy in accents.

The premise to the plot involves an elderly Eleanor living in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As she laments the possible end to peace, and even the world, the audience are taken back in time to the former First Lady’s visit to war-torn London in October of 1942. Through flashbacks we learn about her tour around Great Britain, meeting dignitaries, attending formal functions on behalf of President Franklin D Roosevelt, and visiting US troops and ordinary British people. We also learn in part something about the private person, and how a traumatic childhood and a husband prone to infidelity had shaped Eleanor as a woman. It was fascinating to watch the play and I came to have a deep respect for Mrs Roosevelt, and all that she had tried to achieve.

Until seeing this play my only real reference point for Mrs Roosevelt in recent times was from the film Hyde Park on Hudson. A peripheral character in this movie, I got the distinct feeling that Eleanor was a somewhat cold, unfeeling, distant and slightly eccentric character “full of causes”. The President’s infidelity wasn’t glossed over, but you couldn’t help feel that he had good reason to wander!! However, having seen this play I can well understand why Eleanor devoted herself to causes, and perhaps seemed a bit distant at times. She had offered to divorce Franklin on discovering his first affair, but had been told that wasn’t an option as it wouldn’t be good for his political career. So Eleanor was effectively trapped by the necessity of keeping up appearances, and as a way of coping threw herself into campaigns not particularly fashionable at the time.

Eleanor Roosevelt championed women’s rights and the rights of black people in the US long before it was a common cause. And on her visit to Great Britain she insisted on seeing for herself how the ordinary man/woman/child coped and dealt with the effects of war. The First Lady’s itinerary included visits to factories, land girls tilling the fields, bombed streets, air-raid shelters, docks, WRVS and many other places the length and breadth of the country. Far from the cold and unfeeling character I thought Mrs Roosevelt was, I came away with a sense of someone with a tremendous empathy for those less fortunate. I was particularly struck by a small part in the play, when the First Lady speaks of the horror of witnessing bombed out streets. Her thoughts went along the lines of “although these houses were probably no more than slum dwellings (a civic wrong in itself), they were home for these people. Now they have nothing at all”. Compare that to what the Queen Mother said when Buckingham Palace suffered minor damage from a bomb blast, “glad of it, now we can look the East End in the face”. I was far more moved and affected by the consciousness from Eleanor Roosevelt than the pretentious uttering from our Royal family.

Aware of being someone of privilege, Eleanor Roosevelt strived to put her status to some good use by shining a light onto issues and concerns affecting those less well off, and using that status to try and change things. Only a First Lady could attempt to bring the issue of “wrong socks” for US troops, or black servicemen pay and conditions, to the attention of the US Army General. Through her speeches, news articles and publications Mrs Roosevelt brought many issues into the public domain.

After the war ended Eleanor became the chairwoman for the Commission of Human Rights and its inception, and announced the template for the Commission in 1948. She also became the US ambassador at the United Nations. Now as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to envelop the Western World, an obviously dying Mrs Roosevelt wondered aloud had she done any good during World War Two, and had she tried enough to make a difference. I think the answer is an unequivocal YES.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Image credit offwestend.com
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Image credit offwestend.com

Simon Weston

The day after seeing Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London I went to the National Portrait Gallery, with the express intention of seeing the David Bailey Stardust photo exhibition AND taking a look at the new People’s Portrait of Simon Weston. Last year a competition was held to find a portrait sitter elected by the general public; (a first for the NPG); and Simon won the accolade. Probably he’d be the first to admit a wish that the circumstances which brought his likeness to canvas had not happened.

In 1982 during the Falklands Conflict Simon Weston suffered 46% burns to his body, when the ship Sir Galahad was bombed by the Argentineans. Miraculously Simon survived his ordeal but many of his comrades perished. Over the years Simon has been a tireless fund raiser for charity, and his badly scarred face has become a familiar sight on TV.

The artist chosen for the People’s Portrait was Nicola Jane Philipps, who I believe did a superb portrait of Prince William & Prince Harry a few years ago. I liked the royal picture very much so I was intrigued to see how Nicola would portray Simon. On setting eyes on the newly commissioned portrait I was not disappointed. I found the simple and yet powerfully styled setting with muted colours and soft lines very appealing.

In the portrait Simon is holding his medals, standing behind a chair that has a soldier’s beret sitting on it. Simon’s badly damaged hands are prominent holding the medals, a symbol of his (and other soldiers) courage and bravery. The beret on an otherwise empty seat is a tribute to those who have passed. The standing position of Simon could be interpreted as “standing for justice and fairness to all”, or as a position of strength I suppose. Dressed in a simple open necked shirt and jacket, rather than the pomp and circumstance of a full military uniform, Simon is shown as an ordinary humble man. The one thing in the portrait that I couldn’t take my eyes off were Simon’s eyes, which had a depth of colour and clarity to them that mesmerised me. The distinctive line and the striking blue colour of the eyes stood out from the fudged framework of earthy shades. The only other sign of bold colour in the portrait came from the patriotic medal ribbons (red, blue and white).

You could say that Simon Weston having endured horrific burns to almost half his body is aesthetically half the man he was, when he embarked on a ship bound for the Falkland Islands. But having survived that extraordinary experience, those eyes tell you that Simon Weston today is twice the man he was before.

People's Portrait Simon Weston. Image credit Nicola Jane Philipps
People’s Portrait Simon Weston. Image credit Nicola Jane Philipps