Reviews West End & Central Published 4 November 2011

Three Days in May

Trafalgar Studios ⋄ 31st October 2011 - 3rd March 2012

The dogs of war.

Tracey Sinclair

Ben Brown’s new play is set during a pivotal time in British history. It is 1940, the Allied Army has suffered heavy defeats and the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill faces a terrible decision: to sue Nazi Germany for peace, or to fight on despite the terrifying odds and the wavering support of the beleaguered French. The fact that we all know the outcome of his dilemma should make little difference: there are numerous plays and films that take an audience on a familiar journey, and still make it a tense and gripping one: the fascination of unknown secrets revealed, the frisson of the near miss, the tantalizing terror of what might have been.

Absorbing as it is, Brown’s play doesn’t quite pull this off. Much of this is a problem with the story itself: focused as it is around negotiations and argument, it is necessarily talky, and though Brown’s script has some nice character touches and pleasing flashes of wit, at times it feels like one long exposition dump, especially in the slower first half. Even with the sense of disaster looming – made almost palpable by Gary McCann’s beautiful war room set, with England’s victories and losses projected onto a giant map – there is rarely a sufficient sense of urgency: occasionally it feels like watching a disagreement at a gentleman’s club rather than a debate over the fate of nations. (In fairness, this gives the play a chilling resonance: there is something rather terrifying in watching a Government coolly discuss strategically abandoning colonies and countries as if they were cards to be discarded in a political game rather than thousands of people’s lives.)

In part, of course, one could argue that this detachment is a product of the personalities involved: even at the time, Churchill stood out as a ‘rogue elephant’, the man not afraid to roar while others kept their voices at the politest of murmurs.

The actors in general portray this well: it must be enormously difficult to play characters so firmly established in the public psyche, but neither Warren Clarke as Churchill or Robert Demerger as Chamberlain descend into caricature. Clarke’s Churchill is, yes, stubborn and pugnacious, but he’s a man who fears he is out of his depth and is kept buoyant on the strength of his convictions alone: in one of the play’s most notable images, he talks of taking up a rifle and defending Downing Street himself. I found Demerger occasionally stilted, but he elegantly hinted at the tragedy behind the stiff upper lip façade: that of a basically decent man outpaced by events in a world that has rapidly changed beyond his understanding. Would-be appeaser Lord Halifax (Jeremy Clyde) is suitably slick and pragmatic, while as Clement Attlee and union man Arthur Greenwood (Michael Sheldon and Dicken Ashworth) are the impassioned voice of the frustrated Left, even if the latter occasionally veers dangerously close to ‘grim oop north’ territory. As our narrator and entry into this rarefied world where old men make decisions behind closed doors, James Alper plays Churchill’s young assistant with an easy charm and a warmth conspicuously absent from the rest of the play, even though his decision to enlist – while leading to a nice, almost domestic, scene between him and Clarke – feels slightly shoehorned into the text.

While director Alan Strachan could have tightened up the slightly slack first half, the pace picks up in the second, and one can’t help but be moved by the finale, as Churchill and with him, Britain, vows to fight on, even as the clouds of war darken behind him.

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Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

Three Days in May Show Info


Directed by Alan Strachan

Written by Ben Brown

Cast includes James Alper, Warren Clarke, Jeremy Hyde, Dicken Ashworth, Timothy Kightley, Paul Ridley

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