Review: Three Days In May

No sweat or tears, but still enthralling


By John Nathan, November 11, 2011
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Trafalgar Studios, London SW1

Warren Clarke as Churchill, standing firm against Hitler

Warren Clarke as Churchill, standing firm against Hitler

Playwright Ben Brown likes to revive history's heroes and put them on the stage. He did it with the poet Philip Larkin and, in his last play, with Herbert Samuel, the first practising Jew to sit in the British Cabinet. Called The Promise - yes, the same title as Peter Kosminsky's infamous Channel 4 offering about the establishment of Israel - Brown's intriguing play shone a light on the debate between two Jews in the British government, both of whom had very strong views as to whether Britain should push for the creation of a Jewish state. (Samuel was decidedly for while the other, Edwin Montagu, was emphatically against).

In its own way, you could argue that Brown's Three Days In May is equally relevant to Anglo-Jewry. Set in 1940, as Britain was grimly contemplating the loss of its army at Dunkirk, the play revives a little-known dilemma with which Churchill and his coalition War Cabinet struggled - whether or not to sue for peace following the fall of France, and thereby be saved from a savage invasion by Hitler.

The play reveals that it was a close- run thing. It also manages to be simultaneously dreary and tense. It largely consists of a bunch of elderly politicians sitting around the Cabinet table arguing over policy. But the course of action they are deciding on is crucial to the survival of the country, the stakes could not be higher, and Alan Strachan's production, led by Warren Clarke in the role of a cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking Churchill, never lets the play drag.

The action - actually, the sitting, talking and occasional walking - takes place in front of giant map of Europe. Churchill's young secretary, Jock Colville (James Alper), doubles as a likeable narrator. He tells us that the version of history written by Churchill - the man who said "history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it" - rather glossed over the fact that, for a few days in May 1940, he and his colleagues agonised over whether to throw in the towel.

It emerges that the decision to fold or fight depends on which side of the argument former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain will opt for. Could the man generally judged as one of history's appeasers, who once put his faith in negotiating with Hitler, now choose to fight?

It is here that Brown does a pretty efficient job in rehabilitating the ex-PM's reputation. In one of the short scenes between Cabinet sessions, Chamberlain, nicely played by a lugubrious Robert Demeger, persuasively argues that his failed pact with Hitler bought Britain crucial time with which to rebuild its air force. Churchill counters that had they supported the well-armed Czechs instead of abandoning them, Hitler would have had far fewer divisions with which to fight in the rest of Europe.

As Churchill, Clarke ticks all the boxes. He has the bearing of a bulldog, a convincingly Churchillian growl, and a clear-headed moral core shining through his arguments.

It all amounts to a pretty instructive and quietly rousing history lesson.

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    Last updated: 10:53am, November 11 2011