Writer: Tony Tortora
Director: Richard Bonham
In Churchill, debuting playwright Tony Tortora has offered a vignette that is modest in physical scale, but rather grander in terms of psychology and characterisation. The play concerns the recently-deceased former prime minister arriving at neither Heaven nor Hell, but a ‘weigh station’ for the afterlife, in which Sir Winston is presented with several of his favourite artefacts in the hope he’ll be entertained until he moves to his final destination. Unimpressed with the facsimiles of the possessions of the mortal coil, and with the obsequiousness of his anonymous servant (who ends up named after Winston’s last trusted servant Howes, played by Stephen Bellamy), Churchill demands a companion more intellectually stimulating.
Attempting to put words into the mouths of two of the most compelling public speakers in human history is an unenviable task, and Tortora has very nearly pulled it off. Daring, too, were the actors, who not only had to embody these leaders of warring nations, but to do so almost on their own for two hours. Howes and his subordinate, the down-to-earth Annie (Carolyn Eden), provide comic effect, as well as a slightly unwieldy touch of deus ex machina.
The first half is very entertaining, and feels far briefer than its hour. Jeremy Dobbs, though he doesn’t look incredibly like Sir Winston, delivers with largely accurate enunciation and carries himself with suitable gravitas. Michael Forrest was a rather less convincing Hitler, though his task was inherently more difficult. Not only are there myriad Churchill speeches to learn from, but tonight’s Hitler spoke English (in the afterlife, everyone apparently speaks English, leading Churchill to revel in the fact that he always knew God was an Englishman) and we don’t know how that would have sounded. Rather less northern England-accented than tonight, perhaps?
Whether due to the fatigue that comes with such demanding roles (and the sheer amount of lines Dobbs and Forrest needed to memorise), or press night jitters, the lead performances slipped a little after the interval. It’s especially unfortunate when Hitler stumbles over his lines just as he waxes lyrical about how fascinating a speaker he is, or Churchill chewing for rather too long on the syllables of the word ‘oratory’. The nerves noticeably diminish when Carolyn Eden appears on stage, her easy confidence and Annie’s likeability positively influencing her colleagues.
Intriguing was the actual script. It was quite obvious that at one point, commonalities would be found between the two otherwise utter enemies, so it was interesting to see how they’d arrive at such a point in the conversation. It turns out the initial thawing in the atmosphere comes when Churchill inspects the paintings Hitler has with him; they’re both fond of art. And so the occasionally too friendly debate begins. There is perhaps not enough content to justify the running time: though it would seem the two could argue forever (a notion touched upon in the play), points such as the different levels of wealth the pair enjoyed/endured growing up were rather driven into the ground. While this is also drawn attention to in the script, such self-awareness does not necessarily excuse the flaw’s existence.
As this was early in the play’s run (the third performance of this premiere run), one would hope the lead actors settle more comfortably into their lines as the nights go on, and certainly before the play debuts in London, later this summer. As it stands, Churchill is an interesting, if not entirely successful debut for Tortora, whose ambition is to be applauded. There are some wickedly amusing lines, and the subjects discussed – such as the paradox of Hitler’s anti-Semitism coexisting with his fondness for some Jews – provide food for thought. However, the play feels a little too much like a snack, when its ingredients should provide a banquet of character and drama.
Runs until 20 July 2013
This review originally appeared in The Public Reviews
Photography: Matt Tullett