STAGE REVIEW: The Desert Queen @ Neasham Reading Room, Darlington (07.05.19) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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When Gertrude Bell died in 1926 nations mourned the passing of a figure as esteemed as Churchill or TE Lawrence, two figures the girl born in Washington, Tyne & Wear knew and worked closely alongside. For some reason history has not been so kind to Gertrude, but The Desert Queen, by David Farn and directed by Neil Armstrong, is aiming to change all that.

Gertrude Bell was brought up in a privileged background of the industrialist Bell family in Red Barns, Redcar. Blocked from succeeding her father Hugh in the iron and steel business by virtue of her gender it was the only time she let anything or anyone get the better of her. An Oxford graduate, an Alpine mountaineer, a gardener, author, archaeologist, explorer, mapmaker, librarian, linguist, diplomat and spy, her skills truly knew no limits. In many of these achievements she was a trail blazer as a woman; which makes it all the more bizarre that she would be a firm anti-suffragist. She was also one of the makers of modern Iraq and without Gertrude, Lawrence of Arabia would have had no guerilla band in WW1. Oh, and there were two unhappy love affairs also.

Gertrude seemed to hurtle and hurdle through several high achieving lives all rolled into one. So how on earth has playwright David Farn managed to distil such an incredible life story into just an action packed hour?

The Desert Queen stars South Shields based Kylie-Ann Ford as the exhausting, full-on Gertrude. Lawrence Neale tries to keep up with her playing all the male co-stars from her mountaineer guide and guiding father Hugh, through to her desert servants finding water for her daily bath and King Faisal, the man she helped install on the new Iraqi throne.

We leap from applying ice axes into shear rock walls on Mont Blanc to clambering aboard camels in the desert. Kylie is equally convincing whether hanging off a rope in her underwear or unveiled facing down a sheik in his tent. Kylie/Gertrude doesn’t suffer fools gladly but she opens many of the secrets of her world up to us. Maybe in a way that the real Gertrude might have found hard to do, outside of the hundreds and hundreds of letters she wrote home, now all archived alongside 7,000 photographs in Newcastle University. A remarkable life story requires a remarkable performance and Lawrence Neale has to stand on tip-toes to keep pace with Kylie’s Gertrude. But he makes it.

The play is on its second tour of the region, with the first season a sell-out. I caught it in the rustic charms of Neasham Reading Room, nestled by the River Tees. The audience were so captivated they stayed back to question the writer, fascinated by the life and the interpretation they had just witnessed. Rediscover the Queen of the Desert and celebrate again the life of an amazing woman at The Forum, Northallerton on Thursday 9th and The Lit & Phil, Newcastle on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th May.

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