29 July 2022

Review: Mrs Simpson in Felixstowe

By Rachel Sloane
Mrs Simpson,
played by Petra Risbridger

‘Mrs Simpson in Felixstowe’ by Suzanne Hawkes. At Harvest House, Felixstowe, presented by Black and White Productions. 28th July 2022

The notorious Wallis Simpson, the American whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne for, spent time in Felixstowe  in 1936 while she waited out the six weeks compulsory British residence she needed before qualifying for a divorce from her husband that would enable the Royal marriage to go ahead. 

The divorce was granted in Ipswich, with the press and crowds of local people waiting to get a glimpse of the woman who had ‘bewitched’ the King. 

This production, as in all her plays carefully researched by local playwright  Suzanne Hawkes, relates Wallis Simpson’s boredom and hatred of the seaside town, in a series of letters she wrote to her husband, Ernest Simpson. There were several chuckles and/or gasps from the Felixstowe audience members as she wrote disparagingly about her temporary home, saying she felt ‘stifled by the little town …more like a prison’ that was ‘not to my liking’. She also didn’t like the fact that no-one recognised her in the town nor paid her any attention! 

Sitting at her small writing table, Wallis, (played by Petra Risbridger,  slim, poised and elegant with an excellent languid ‘Southern belle’ accent) was very much the main character and rose to the challenge wonderfully. Wallis  wrote her letters, speaking aloud their content, to her husband Ernest (Dennis Bowran). A ‘safe’ English gentleman,  with his pipe, sitting in a large armchair, he continued the dialogue as he read aloud the letters he received. Occasionally they would reply to each other’s comments, and at one point very briefly danced together. Otherwise, the two characters did not even glance at each other from their individual sides of the stage area. 

Providing the welcome touch of humour, as Wallis and Ernest’s roles were understandably of a more serious nature, was the Cook, played by Suzanne Hawkes herself. 

Music by
Stephanie and Bill Stoddart

Also punctuating the one-hour play, were ‘musical interludes’ as they might have called them in the 1930’s, allowing Wallis time for costume changes.  Stephanie Stoddart, in elegant evening dress, diamonds and elbow length gloves sung into an old fashioned style microphone, standing by the grand piano, accompanied by her ( I assume) husband, Bill Stoddart, an excellent pianist.

It was interesting how the portrayal of Wallis Simpson was interpreted differently by members of the audience. I ended up feeling some sympathy for her as she confessed her regrets about the flirtation, which she never thought would end with the King falling in love with her…and her dread of what was to come. Others watching found the play confimed their dislike of her and thought her shallow, manipulative and getting what she deserved. Well, she was always a controversial character!  

I have seen several of Black and White Productions on-location plays and seeing ‘Mrs Simpson in Felixstowe’ in the spectacular Palm Court of Harvest House, which was once a hotel that Wallis, whilst living at the (now demolished) Beach House for six weeks, apparently visited for afternoon tea, was one of the best yet. 

This play is one of two that Black and White Productions is taking to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I bet they wish they could take the Palm Court at Harvest House, and the grand piano with them!