By: Ben Brown
Diretced by: Alan Strachan
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Friday 14th October 2011
This is a play of two halves. The first half was a bit slow, introducing historical characters that needed no introduction for many of us, and setting up the central dilemma: with France nearly taken by the Germans, should Britain’s government consider negotiating a peaceful settlement, or should they focus entirely on resisting the Nazi advance? The official history held that they never thought about negotiations at all, but the reality appears to be that there were three days in May 1940 when the War Cabinet did debate such a possibility. Their final choice, to fight on, shaped our world in ways we probably haven’t fully appreciated yet, and by looking at this ‘wobble’, the play brings the importance of that choice into greater focus.
The set kept things relatively simple. The back wall was covered by a vast map of Europe, which obscured the two entrances to the Cabinet room. The entrance on the left was double doors, while there was a single door on the right. The raised platform in front of the wall held a long table, and there was a drinks table behind this. In front of the platform was a space which held the chairs at the start but was otherwise empty, and Jock Colville’s desk was front right. The costumes were naturally of their time, including Chamberlain’s Edwardian frock coat which he continued to wear.
The play was narrated by Jock Colville, Winston Churchill’s secretary at the time. We were shown the five Cabinet members – Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax, Atlee and Greenwood – at prayers on the Sunday, followed by a meeting between Churchill and the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud. This triggered the Cabinet debate, with Halifax and Chamberlain keen to avoid the bloodshed of another war, and Churchill temporarily uncertain. Atlee and Greenwood didn’t push the matter initially, although they spoke up later on about the importance of keeping the momentum going so that the British workers (for these were Labour men) would be up for a fight. With Halifax threatening to resign if the negotiation option was ruled out, Churchill has to put pressure on Chamberlain to keep the War Cabinet together.
The second half started with Churchill and Chamberlain having a little meeting before the rest of the War Cabinet arrived. This scene contained most of the play’s humour, and livened things up a lot. Despite his natural inclinations, Chamberlain finally agrees to support Churchill, and keeps his word in the Cabinet debate. The play ends with Churchill smoking and drinking in typical fashion, while Jock gives us a brief update on the history, ending with a quote from Stalin. He leaves, and Winston is left in the spotlight for a moment, then they fade to black.
It was a good ending to an interesting play, as Ben Brown’s usually are. I did think the first half could do with being beefed up a bit; I felt we could have done with more background on just how much these men had been put off war from their experience of WWI (well, not Churchill, obviously). It’s hard to get into the mentality of the time when no one knew the outcome of these choices, while us knowing how things turned out automatically removes any possibility of suspense. But the second half made up for the first, and I thought all the performances were very good. Robert Demeger was not in the original cast, but was excellent as Chamberlain, while Warren Clarke did a very good impersonation of Churchill’s voice and delivery, so good in fact that I couldn’t make out what he was saying a few times early on. But I soon tuned in, and his stage presence was reassuringly strong. Jeremy Clyde was equally as good as Lord Halifax, and the rest of the cast were fine, though they didn’t have as much to do. It will be interesting to see how this gets on in the West End.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me