Theatre Review - 'Three Days in May'

Posted by Alexander Hay

1940 - Britain's on the ropes as the Third Reich sweeps across Europe. To fight or not to fight? For three vital days, the fate of the UK and the free world hung in the balance, as the latest play by Ben Brown reveals

Warren Clarke & Timothy Kightley drink to happier timesThe situation isn't looking good. You are officially losing World War II. Your main ally is about to capitulate. The Americans are writing you off. The bulk of your armies are potentially stranded over the English Channel. Your industrial base is vulnerable to aerial attack, and there's a question as to whether your navy and air force can protect your shores. Worse, your other allies are the Belgians. What to do?

This was the dilemma faced by Winston Churchill in May 1940, during quite possibly the darkest moment in British history since the Battle of Hastings. The official line, until recently, was that there was no other option than to fight. But as Ben Brown's new play, 'Three Days in May' reveals, based as it is on recently declassified documents, there was a very likely chance we could have sued for peace instead...

How the play handles this dilemma, on its cleverly designed set care of Gary McCann, is to focus on the main characters. The result is very successful, with Warren Clarke's Winston Churchill captured in all his determined, forthright and ever so slightly crazed glory, his lower lip jutting out like a wall of spears as the cigar smoke flows freely. While it eventually slips into full-on Winny Worship in the latter stages of the play, it skilfully portrays the man's fears and doubts, not of the rightness of his cause, but the chance of him ever being allowed to succeed in it, not to mention one or two short but intense bursts of rage.

Countering this, and representing the faction that still yearned for appeasement long after the humiliation of Munich, was the then Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, played with cold, reptilian relish by Jeremy Clyde. The play artfully captures a man whose faction detested war with a naive passion yet made it utterly inevitable. Clyde's Halifax remains delusionally committed almost to the end of the play, his underestimating both Britain's will to fight and overestimating the good nature of Hitler (!) rooted in a deep, complacent arrogance.

Arguably, though, the key struggle takes place for the support of former Prime Minister, and once arch appeaser, Neville Chamberlain, played with subdued pain and retiring pathos by Robert Demeger. Can Churchill win him over? Or will Halifax prevail? (Hint: You may already know the answer.)

Some of the most intense scenes involve Chamberlain, a broken, haunted and humbled man who nonetheless retains some stubborn pride and even hubris, seeking some kind of redemption, or perhaps his own finest hour, even as his reputation lays in ruins and the cancer that would soon kill him takes hold. One might even go so far as to say he is the true 'one man' who makes a difference in both the play and our history.

Framing the piece is Churchill's erstwhile secretary and factotum 'Jock' Colville, realised by James Alper as both a naive and yet sincere narrator and silent presence in many of the scenes where he leans over his desk as the War Cabinet fights for the nation's future. Colville also embodies the honest humour that flows through the play, a sort of self-knowing wit and poignancy invoked as the destinies of nations and men are schemed over with growing ruthlessness.

Sadly, neither Michael Sheldon nor Dicken Ashworth, playing Labour ministers Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood respectively, have much to do in the play except deliver two-dimensional lines and be taken for granted by Churchill, despite their best efforts. Paul Ridley and Timothy Kightley, playing a starched General John Dill and the decidedly wobbly French premier Paul Reynauld, are meanwhile simply not given enough to do. 

For all that, it is still rousing, intense theatre that makes all the politicking and squabbling seem compelling and alive. It would have been easy for Three Days in May to have been a simple historical re-enactment. Instead, it dramatises the events to great effect, guilty though it is of adding to the mythologisation of Britain's experiences during World War II. That doesn't stop it being excellent theatre though.

Three Days in May is showing at the Trafalgar Studios from 04/11/2011 to 03/03/2012. You can book your tickets HERE.

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Alexander Hay

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