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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THREE DAYS IN MAY
at Trafalgar Studio 1

AT THE PRECIPICE
By CLAIRE ALLFREE

  Robert Demeger, Jeremy Hyde and Warren Clarke/ Ph: Keith Pattinson

With the straight play an increasingly endangered species in the West End, one ought to applaud with both hands the arrival of this political drama about the day Churchill almost took Britain out of World War II. Yet it’s a little hard to get over excited about a production that sets its sights so unswervingly on so safe an audience demographic.

It’s 1940, and Warren Clarke’s suitably upholstered, cigar-chomping prime minister has just been informed that France is on the verge of capitulating to the Germans. With America yet to show the slightest interest in getting involved, and British troops in crisis in France, Britain can either agree to a peace with Hitler brokered by Mussolini or, in true Bulldog spirit, fight on alone. Churchill’s cabinet is divided on the issue. His dovish foreign minister Lord Halifax is in favour of talking to Mussolini; his Labour war cabinet colleagues are determined to fight on; a dejected Chamberlain (Robert Demeger), newly demoted from the top spot, is siding with Halifax. Sixteen days into his premiership, Churchill has a crisis on his hands.

Ben Brown’s wordy script neatly ventures into the corridors of power to eavesdrop on the conversations of the powerful. There’s also a nice frisson to be had in the fact that the Whitehall Theatre is yards away from where much of the drama of this play took place. Yet Alan Strachen’s starchy production makes little concession to modernity, instead coating these hugely powerful historical figures in the aspic of endless cigar smoke, whisky sodas, endless chats round the table and "my dear boy" backslaps.

It’s a pity: A more dynamic production about this pivotal moment in history may have made for an audience with a medium age this side of 50. And it’s hardly as though Brown doesn’t have stuff to say on the cut and thrust of political wheeling, the late-night deals struck behind closed doors, and the morality of going to war itself. Moreover this particular moment, in which the British course during the war could have been abruptly redirected, adds a pleasing corrective to Churchill’s own self-generated myth of cabinet resolve: It may not be revelatory to many, but I certainly learned something.

There is more to playing Churchill than simply being a bit full in the chops, and Clarke, that rasping, slightly mumbling husk of a voice impeccably intact, captures something of Churchill’s surprisingly slippery charm (particularly as he goes to work on persuading Chamberlain to change his mind) as well as, in the odd solitary moment this play offers him, his private anxiety.

Brown provides a clever framing device through Chamberlain’s private secretary, Jock Colville (a charismatic James Alper), who narrates the action with boyish charm and eager sincerity. There is also a superb moment at the end when Churchill looks positively elated at the thought of more war, of fighting on. Still, for a play about the day we almost got into bed with Hitler, Three Days in May sometimes feels a bit damp and creaky. On the other hand, as Clarke settles into his chair at the end with yet another whisky, job done, you can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic for the days when prime ministers really knew how to govern.

 

 


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