The five minutes bell had just rung, and the bassist from The Jam was holding up the bar queue. The fact that there was a queue at all, this being a weeknight at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, was a pretty good sign that this show had a powerful appeal to a particular demographic, and would do good business when it got to London. Unfortunately, I needed a pint, and that demographic (comfortably off, of a certain age, many having already retired from stockbroking or changing the course of rock history) was getting between me and the Old Speckled Hen. 1
There were a lot of promises in the room. The posters promised us the chance to see Warren Clarke as Churchill, one of Britain’s most superbly gruff actors embodying the gruffest of all its national heroes. Then the play’s opening scene promised us the inside story of Churchill’s war cabinet during the period when the country “stood alone” (in the words of endless novels and history books) against the Nazis. This is national myth writ extremely large – so much of the discourse around Britain’s political and social identity still looks back to that time, and takes the struggle against Hitler’s Germany as its finest, and defining, hour.
Clarke certainly made good on his obligations. He barked, he grunted, he rumbled, and, once you got used to the fact that he was acting on a slightly more heightened plane than the rest of the cast, he gave a surprisingly subtle account of a figure who was larger than life even during his life. Clarke hasn’t always had the range of roles his talent deserves, and has ended up stuck in the public mind for gruff Yorkshire detective Andy Dalziel and gruff Northern mill-owner Mr. Hardwood, so it was cheery to see him do more with the role than move the gruff south a bit. It gradually becomes clear that Churchill is using his own near-caricatured persona to get around his cabinet colleagues, playing on his own stature to cajole and browbeat them into agreeing to give him the time he needs before coming to an accommodation with Germany.
The play isn’t quite so forthcoming. It’s a skilful and lively account of what went on between those men who, for a while, really did decide the fate of the country. Old-fashioned history from above, with treaties, private conferences, battles of wills and none particularly the worse for that if you enjoy it. However, having breathlessly offered to give us the astonishing inside scoop on what really went on behind closed doors on those days in May, it proceeds to explain that what really went on was more or less what we all thought. I didn’t know many of the details – and as Michael Billington of the Guardian has said, it’s salutary to be reminded now and then of how inevitable our victory in WWII wasn’t – but the fact that Churchill was incredibly obstinate, smoked cigars and never wanted to surrender to Germany is hardly earth-shattering news. The real surprise of the piece came when it seemed that the reviled Neville Chamberlain, who has still never recovered from “Peace In Our Time!”, was the casting vote in supporting Churchill’s defiance. He has a good speech about growing sisal on an island, but it comes rather too late. And there’s an awful lot of macho byplay with whiskey and a revolver and gruff manly reticence which gave the whole piece a slightly queasy back-slapping air. As an historical account of those days it succeeds brilliantly, but as a thriller I couldn’t get involved.
1 In case you’re worried, and to avoid any undue suspense in this review, it did end ok. I nicked one of the plastic pint cups they keep by the water jugs, and decanted the ale as soon as it came across the bartop, thus sashaying into the auditorium with my drink in my hand and avoiding the dilemma faced by my co-queuers, who had to either chug a five quid glass of Cotes du Rhone in two minutes or leave it behind.