The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Winter 2011-2012
'Tis the season, it would appear, for historical docudramas.
In the wake of Collaborators, John Hodge's pure fantasy about Stalin at the National Theatre, now comes Ben Brown's somewhat more realistic depiction of Winston Churchill and a wartime episode kept secret at the time.
In the same 1940 weekend as the evacuation of Dunkirk, Churchill's War Cabinet was seriously considering suing for a peace treaty – amounting for all practical purposes to a surrender - with Hitler, using Mussolini as an intermediary.
Arguing for it, on the grounds that they were likely to get more favourable terms now than later, were former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. Against, on pure patriotism and the belief that Hitler would break any treaty and destroy Britain anyway, were Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, and Churchill himself.
And that's about it, as far as the play goes. The five men sit around a table arguing the issue, watched by secretary Jock Colville, who serves as narrator. Physical action consists essentially of walking in and sitting down, and then later getting up and walking out. This is radio drama onstage.
But the real attraction of dramatised history, rather than history itself, lies in the guesses by playwright, director and actors about the personalities of the public figures, and how character shaped history. And the speculations by Brown, director Alan Strachan and his able cast are satisfyingly convincing.
Warren Clarke, giving the same Churchill imitation as every other portly actor of the past seventy years, does capture the man's political slyness and mercurial quality, switching styles of argument to fit his opponents. He flatters Attlee, blackmails Chamberlain with the threat to quit if not supported, and when all else fails, just bullies or drowns everyone else out with sheer quantity of words.
Jeremy Clyde makes Halifax a Roman patrician, visibly uneasy in the company of commoners and offended that anyone could have the audacity and sheer bad taste to disagree with him. Robert Demeger's Chamberlain seems lost in thought much of the time, perhaps mulling over the fact that he had been in the PM's chair less than three weeks ago, and visibly forcing his mind to the surface to speak or respond to others.
The Labour leaders are written as generic northern salt-of-the-earth folk, giving Michael Sheldon and Dicken Ashworth little to do, and James Alper's Colville is too transparently a narrative device to have much reality as a character.
All the history you will learn from Ben Brown is in that summary above, so the play's attractions must lie entirely in watching several skilled actors creating believable might-be-true characterisations.
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