Edinburgh Fringe, Ernest Thesiger, History, Kevin Moore, Nichola McAuliffe, Peter Straker, Pleasance Dome, Queen Mary of Teck, Revenants by Nichola McAuliffe, Revolution, Russian Revolution, Theatre Review, Tok Stephen, World War Two
“If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise.” “Revenants” is written by Nichola McAuliffe and it is all but finished at the Pleasance Dome. The year is 1943 and Queen Mary (Nichola McAuliffe), the then Queen Mother and the grandmother of the current monarch, is picnicking in the Gloucestershire countryside. The set is dazzling, with curtains of bright autumnal foliage hanging around the picnic spot, and the giant bum of a Daimler protruding on to the stage. Queen Mary is joined by her crochet partner, the actor Ernest Thesiger (Peter Straker), and her British-Jamaican chauffeur, Walcott (Kevin Moore). The highest two in this hierarchy are here to drink a toast to the Romanovs, who Mary believes she could have saved from their massacre had her husband, George V, offered them asylum.
Strangely, the Romanovs are toasted with vodka. Mary is trying to empathise not with the murdered royals but with the revolutionaries who had shot them. This is a baffling and rather fanciful scene and it sets the tone for the rest of an increasingly peculiar story. Like a djinn that has been released from the vodka bottle, a gunman (Tok Stephen) suddenly bolts on to the stage. He too is a revolutionary and a victim – a black American GI who is fleeing from racial violence on a nearby base. But unlike her cousins, the Queen will not meet a bullet with her name on it. She is a shrewd but kindly old bird and she manages to talk the revolutionary down from his crisis.
Of course, all of this had never happened, and there is obviously some doubt over whether it would have been psychologically possible. In 1982, it was claimed that the current Queen had gamely submitted to a ten-minute conversation with Michael Fagan, an intruder who had broken into her bedroom at Buckingham Palace. In 2012, however, Fagan had squashed this fairy story: “Nah! She went past me and ran out of the room, her little bare feet running across the floor.”
The vision of an adventuring incognito monarch, accompanied by a few trusted advisors, is a venerable motif within folk storytelling, with the caliph Harun al-Rashid from the Arabian Nights being probably the most famous double-walker. Though on the historical accuracy of “Revenants”: yes, the Queen Mother was driven in a Daimler; no, her real-life wartime chauffeur, Fred Southgate, was not of Jamaican origin; and yes, she and Thesiger had really embroidered together. He had called himself a “stitching bitch.”
This play’s direction is very well done, the dialogue is often amusing, and the performances are always strong. Yet “Revenants” is not content with being merely an inoffensive slice of ersatz Downton Abbey and its efforts to become something else transform it into a puzzle and a headache. The story’s melancholy implications jar with its ultimately merry atmosphere. Moreover, there is no pause in which you can get a finer grip on this play because its characters have their mouths constantly bulging with biography and reminiscences. A sharply realistic altercation between the gunman and Thesiger, for example, would have said greatly more about black homophobia and gay pride than the aimless explanatory back and forth that passes between them.
If the gunman needs a lesson in dialling down the Black Power, it seems gratuitous that it should be provided by a crowned head. It is easy for Queen Mary to warn against revolution – after all, she has all the money! Each of these characters values discretion: Queen Mary had dutifully suppressed her wit and intelligence whilst she was coupled with a serving king; Thesiger had married his beloved’s sister rather than being openly a bachelor; the honey-voiced Jamaican immigrant has got as far as he possibly can into the establishment; and the gunman will return to the base and swallow the insults. History is therefore rather like a fever and one should simply wait for it to pass, with the sprightly good humour of Queen Mary.
Oddly, since all of these characters would have been in the firing line had Hitler successfully invaded Gloucestershire, they never evoke the more succinct logic of self-preservation. Instead, the revolutionary drinks up his long British lesson in patience and passivity as though it was tea in a bone china cup.