Despite obligatory moments of red-white-and-blue willy waving, there is much to admire in Ben Brown's subtle documentary drama, which takes us back to three desperate days in 1940.
The scene is Churchill's Cabinet Room – atmospheric with green leather tables, Scotch, and a projected map of Europe, on which 250,000 British soldiers are retreating to a vulnerable embarkation point called Dunkirk. Belgium is on its knees and France is contemplating surrender. So here's the dilemma for Churchill's war cabinet: more 'jaw-jaw' with Hitler and Mussolini? Or war, at appalling human cost?
The fact that it was a dilemma was swept under the Axminster in Churchill's memoirs but, if Brown's dramatic conjecture is correct, Winston was sparing others' blushes.
James Alper's engaging young cabinet secretary, Jock Colville, who narrates this all-male trip back into the war cabinet minutes, calls it 'Winston's wobble' – though it seems unlikely that Britain's bellicose new PM would have signed off on a second Munich no matter how many notes to Mussolini were drafted by his smooth, too-civilised Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax.
Warren Clarke plays Winston as a great-hearted British bulldog, using his whisky-soaked tonsils to persuasive effect. He looks both sentimental and astute; playing on the feelings of cabinet doves Chamberlain and Halifax to get them on-side for his great gamble. The politicking is the play's main pleasure. And Neville Chamberlain (Robert Demeger) is its unlikely hero: gravely ill and depressed, he finds the courage to admit that he was wrong. It will appeal to those who, in this current European crisis, yearn for the nostalgic balm of Our Finest Hour.
Having avoided knee-jerk patriotism for the most part, it's a huge shame that the play ends crassly, quoting a toast to Churchill from Stalin approving the 'courage of one man' in changing the 'history of the world.' One man acted decisively: but victory belongs to the many who gave their lives for it.
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