Writer/Director Paul Stone has unearthed a gem of World War II history and transformed it into a delightful monologue, now on stage at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.
Summerville's performance leaves a sense of having been truly entertained .
For Queen And Country tells the remarkable and almost unknown story of Major Denis Rake MC, which Stone discovered while making the BBC TV programme Secret Agent Selection. A book about him, The Shooting Star: The Colourful Life and Times of Denis Rake, MC published by Geoffrey Elliott in 2009 filled in all the details.
Born in 1901, Rake would not have realised that his upbringing in Brussels as the son of an English Times correspondent and Belgian soprano were to be the foundation of his later career. He became fluent in English, French, German and Spanish while working as a youngster in a circus where he experienced life in an occupied country and his father being shot for aiding the Allies. He had flings with many men in his early years and moved to work at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with Ivor Novello. With the start of World WAr II he was recruited by Churchill’s Special Operations Executive as a wireless operator and spy.
He was told to keep his head down, get a job and blend in, at which point he decided the best way to to find out what the enemy was up to, whilst maintaining an unlikely cover, was to become a drag queen and entertain the Nazi officers in the night clubs of occupied Paris, where they would be at their most relaxed and talkative.
Inevitably there is much more that follows in terms of captures, imprisonment, escapes and wild encounters. There are also the lovers, the losses and the entertainment. All this provides ample material for revealing the details of Rake’s extraordinary life. Neil Summerville clearly relishes telling the story. He enters carrying a small red suitcase and wearing a plain brown suit that belies the transformation that is about to unfold, though the rack of glittering dresses, already on stage behind his make-up table, serves as a huge clue.
Summerville is thoroughly engaging as he reveals the chapters in Rake’s life. After a little background it’s time for work and so we see the makeup go on line by line. The bright red lipstick demands an equally vivid and glittering dress. Then, voila! She’s ready to go. Well known songs of the period are given amusing rewrites with lyrics that fit the circumstances. There are suggestive glances, an abundance of double entendres and innuendos that are anything but innocent. There is plenty of wit and humour along with some jolly good laughs. Some lines are predictable and not all land perfectly, but the evening is carried through with sincerity and style.
Summerville's performance leaves a sense of having been truly entertained and also of being rewarded by learning about the life of an outstanding individual who was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts. Like works on Alan Turing, it also adds to the increasing catalogue of contributions made by LGBT+ people to the war effort. Unlike Turing’s, this story has a happy ending.