Three Days In May
New drama or history, boys?
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In its publicity material, Three Days in May makes much of its position as one of the few pieces of original writing to premiere in the commercial West End It’s true that the commercial sector has a bad track record in originating new work (many hits, like Jerusalem, began life in subsidised theatres) but to call this ‘new writing’ is to take up an issue with Trades Descriptions.
The play, currently at home at Trafalgar Studios, a mere stone’s throw from 10 Downing Street and Winston Churchill’s real-life war cabinet, is very much rooted in fact. Set across the titular three days, it examines the moment in May 1940 when three Prime Ministers (Chamberlain past, Churchill present, Atlee future) seriously considered conceding to Hitler’s onslaught. Over the course of 76 hours they meet, form, and break alliances, but, thanks to Churchill’s persuasive leadership, the war effort was kept on course.
At least that’s what the historical Churchill did. What happens here, in Ben Brown’s script, is more A-Level hand-out than real drama. Historical verisimilitude is prized above any tension or narrative thrust; so while Lord Halifax has the requisite missing left hand, he’s also missing a decent script Much is talked of Winston’s fire and passion but very little of it is ever seen. It is only when Warren Clarke’s Churchill quotes the real deal in the play’s final moments (‘History will be kind for me for I intend to write it’) that we are reminded of the rhetorical power the man himself had. The play cover what was, perhaps, the darkest hour in the administration of the Second World War; what we get is all the passion of sales managers jostling at a regional conference.
Straight history itself does not make great theatre. While Three Days in May is factually accurate, the dialogue is flat and uninspired, squarely lacking the linguistic flare the drama is crying out for. Brown’s script is almost hagiography, glorifying Churchill to the detriment of the supporting characters It is only in one moment, in which Churchill and Chamberlain privately meet, that Alan Strachan’s production allows the audience a whiff of humanity under the bolster, reminding us that these men are not just historical names, but complex characters in what should be a dramatically rich situation. It also suffers from that most terrible trick of historical drama – the observer narrator. Here, it is Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, Jock Conville, whose diaries provide much source material, who is left to fill in the blanks in order to save the writer from dramatizing them.
The star draw is Warren Clarke, making his return to the stage after 10 years. He certainly looks the part, all jowls and cigar smoke, offering a glimpse of the political animal Churchill undoubtedly was. Jeremy Clyde, serene and saturnine as Lord Halifax, Robert Demeger as a blinking, discarded Chamberlain and the easy charm of James Alper’s Jock all provide worthy support.
Flat, unimaginative and dry, by the final curtain Three Days in May feels like a second-rate museum exhibition. Stay at home, read the Wikipedia article, and seek out exciting and provocative new writing elsewhere.
Sadly, this is theatre at its least inspiring
Three Days in May is at Trafalgar Studios 1, London, until 3 March 2012
Words: Dan Usztan