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REVIEW: Desert Queen at Newcastle Lit & Phil

Hands On presents
The Desert Queen
Newcastle Lit & Phil
Saturday 11 May 2019

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell was born of a wealthy industrial family in the North East. Her achievements as an explorer, scholar, linguist, cartographer and influencer of world politics, would be exceptional in any age. That she lived in the misogynistic Victorian times and accomplished what she did is almost unimaginable. She was the first woman to achieve a first in modern history at Oxford. She was an influential helpmate to Lawrence of Arabia. She advised Winston Churchill and helped install Feisal as king of Iraq. She never married but clearly had a passionate, if chaste, heart. Hers is a tale worth telling.

The playwright David Farn has bravely set out to do that in a play lasting just under an hour. It seemed apt to be seeing that play in the esteemed Literary & Philosophical Society in Newcastle, where Gertrude herself once lectured.

The risk in reviewing this production is to spend hundreds of words retelling her story. For an erudite account of that life, I refer you to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  There is too much to recount of her achievements here, which is also, in a way, the only problem with the play. There is so much to tell, all of it interesting.

Kylie-Ann Ford embodies Bell with charm, authority and wit. It would be impossible not to warm to her portrayal of this character, who chimes so well with our age of gender equality. Playing everybody else in her story is the highly-skilled Lawrence Neale. Beside her 3-dimensional portrayal of Gertrude, his many characterisations, which range from her French stepmother to Winston Churchill, are necessarily pencil sketches. But they are drawn with a sharp pencil, wielded by a keen eye, and they ring true.

The direction by Neil Armstrong brings out all the comedy of the multiple characterisations as well as moving the narrative along, respecting Gertrude’s significant achievements and highlighting the emotion of her, ultimately unfulfilled, emotional life.

This is a story worthy of a big-budget TV series. Let us hope somebody decides to make one. In the meantime, this ambitious production has opened my eyes, and I hope many others’, to a largely forgotten North Eastern hero.

Review by Jonathan Cash

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