The man in question is Winston Churchill; Churchill who knew that history would be kind to him because he was going to write it himself.
Somewhere in the six volumes he wrote about the Second World War, he says that “the supreme question of whether or not we should fight on alone never found a place on the War Cabinet agenda. We were much too busy to waste time on such unreal, academic issues”.
But according to Ben Brown’s play, Churchill’s courage did wobble and giving up became an option during three tense days in May 1940, as France was on the brink of capitulation. The War Cabinet itself then becomes a battlefield opposing Lord Halifax (Jeremy Clyde) supported, for a while, by Neville Chamberlain (Robert Demege), and Clement Attlee (Michael Sheldon) and his right hand (Arthur Greenwood). Churchill (Warren Clarke) is in the middle, trying to have his way once he has made up his mind to fight on.
The whole play rests on the shoulders of Clarke who slips into character very convincingly, even if he pushes the Churchillian mumble to the point of incomprehension sometimes. He is at home in this panegyric of the Greatest Briton and portrays his character’s single-minded sense of purpose with only the slightest tinge of hubris.
It’s a shame that Jock Colville (James Alper), who was Assistant Private Secretary to three Prime Ministers (Chamberlain, Churchill and Attlee), is woefully under-used as a sort of Greek chorus, provider of perspective and comic relief.
The most interesting character, however, is that of Neville Chamberlain, who, as the play begins, ceased to be Prime Minister only a fortnight before. He seems weak and bewildered finding himself still having to take crucial decisions after seemingly losing all self-confidence in the “Peace in Our Time” debacle.
In the end it is difficult to know how much the way those historical figures are presented to us is at all close to how they really were or if this simply mirrors our modern perceptions of them, filtered by decades of re-examining.
This discrepancy and the problem for the playwright of audience hindsight are illustrated by how difficult it is to take the arguments of the appeasers (Halifax and Chamberlain) seriously and to imagine they did hold some legitimacy as a viable option at the time.
The play doesn’t really challenge the nostalgic perspective on the war so common in the UK but it may help humanise those figures who are looming so large on our recent history. It is a strong piece of political entertainment.
Three Days in May is stopping at the Trafalgar Studios on its UK tour until 3rd March 2012.
This is a review of a preview performance. Photo: Keith Pattison