Three Days in May, Richmond Theatre, August/September 2011

On 30 September 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew back to England from Munich and addressed the crowds in Downing Street, giving his “peace for our time” speech. Parts of Czechoslovakia were taken by Germany the next day, and far worse happened to that country in March 1939. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and two days later Britain and France declared war.

Warren Clarke as Churchill

On 10 May 1940 after disastrous Allied military operations on the Continent of Europe, Chamberlain resigned, fully realising the gravity of the situation. Labour party leaders had refused to serve under him in a national coalition government, Lord Halifax the foreign secretary declined to become Prime Minister, and Churchill took over. We are now ready for the start of this play.

On 26 May, Paul Reynard the new French Prime Minister flew to London with proposals for negotiations, leading to three days that formed a turning point in the Second World War. The war cabinet had to decide whether to play for more time and try further peace deals, or tell Mussolini and Hitler to take a running jump. There are five main players: Churchill, Chamberlain, and Halifax, along with Attlee and Arthur Greenwood on the Labour side.

Halifax was keen on negotiation and had Chamberlain with him. “Thank God, Winston’s finally coming round to our point of view” he said after the inner cabinet meeting on 26 May. Churchill in fact wanted to fight, but he was in a tricky position because he had to take Chamberlain with him as leader of the Conservative party, even if Halifax was to be left on one side. So what happened?

Jeremy Clyde as Lord Halifax

Ben Brown’s new play tells us, in a very interesting and well-focussed way. We start and end with Jock Colville, Churchill’s assistant private secretary, at that time a young man of 25, well portrayed by James Alper. Jeremy Clyde was a convincing Halifax with his withered arm, and calm attitude, with Robert Demeger showing Chamberlain as a man with reduced energy levels compared to Churchill. When Churchill calls him in early for the cabinet meeting on May 28 he waits alone with Colville, saying, “It’s now eighteen days since I was Prime Minister — eighteen of the longest days in my life”. He waits . . . silently. And this is one of the strengths of the play. The silences allow the script to breathe, giving Warren Clarke space for his brilliant performance as Churchill, entirely able to coax, cajole, or fire back in annoyance, and the quiet moments are something to treasure. They allow some wonderful quotes to stand out. “History will be kind to me, because I shall write it”, says Churchill. And at the end, Colville, talking from the future, tells us that when the Prime Minister went to Moscow, Stalin said he could think of no other instance in history when the future of the world depended on the courage of one man.

The simple staging, directed by Alan Strachan with designs by Gary McCann, manages to take us from the cabinet room to the garden with only a clever change of Mark Howett’s lighting. It is very effective, and while this play is in line for a West End theatre, yet to be determined, it’s worth a trip to Richmond to see it — click here for details. Performances continue until September 3, after which it goes on tour to the following theatres: Cambridge Arts Theatre, Sept. 5–10; Theatre Royal Bath, Sept. 12–17; Malvern Theatres, Sept. 19–24; Theatre Royal Brighton, Sept. 26–Oct. 1; Milton Keynes Theatre, Oct. 3–8; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Oct. 11–15.

I’ve just heard that this play will go to the Trafalgar Studios from Oct 31 to March 3, 2012.

Leave a Comment