By Allen Packwood
Mr. Packwood is Director of the Churchill Archives Centre and Executive Director of The Churchill Centre UK.
Three days in May, by Ben Brown. A stage play starring Warren Clarke as Churchill and Robert Demeger as Neville Chamberlain. The play was staged in Cambridge during September and October and is now playing at the Trafalgar Studios Theater in the West End.
There is no doubting the enthusiasm of both Warren Clarke (Churchill) and Jeremy Clyde (Halifax) for their roles in the play “Three Days in London,” which opened at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. The two experienced actors visited the Archives Centre and responded knowledgably to being shown some of the original documents from 1940, including the diaries of Jock Colville and Leo Amery and some of Churchill’s speech notes.
The play is about the debates in the War Cabinet between 26 and 28 May 1940, at which Lord Halifax proposed using Mussolini (then still neutral) to explore peace terms with Nazi Germany. It is ground well covered by John Lukacs in his book “Five Days in London, May 1940” though interestingly John is not credited in the programme. Playwright Ben Brown has certainly drawn dialogue from contemporary sources, and has his characters quoting extensively from the Cabinet minutes and the texts of Churchill’s speeches. But, of course, he has also used his imagination to fill in the gaps and speculate on the nature of the conversations between the principal protagonists, chiefly Churchill, Chamberlain and Halifax with supporting roles by Attlee and Greenwood.
The transition from real to imaginary does not always make for smooth dialogue, and, until the second half, the play felt a bit like a series of tableaux, lacking a sustained driving narrative and momentum. The need to give background information also leads to some unlikely and unrealistic conversation, not least between Churchill and Chamberlain about their respective views in the 1930s.
I did like the decision to use Jock Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries and the chronicler of these events through his diary, as the narrator. His role in ushering the others in and out of the Prime Minister’s presence helps ease the transition between scenes. Warren Clarke’s Churchill is all bulldog, glowering and angry. He does convey a man of conviction under pressure.
Though Colville claims at the outset that even Churchill wobbled, it is not at all clear that Clarke’s Churchill does wobble. He grudgingly allows Halifax to draft a memorandum, which he then opposes. Perhaps there was a bit too much anger, maybe at the expense of some of the energy and charisma that must also have been there. Jeremy Clyde’s Halifax was superb: aristocratic, reserved, and unable to comprehend Churchill’s desire to fight when there might be an alternative, however unpalatable. Yet if Churchill was too hard, Chamberlain seemed too soft. It was difficult to reconcile this portrayal of a nice and reasonable and essentially ordinary man with the hard-edged politician who dominated British politics in the late Thirties, and who remained a powerful force and Leader of the Conservative Party.
“Three Days in May” has great moments and some wonderful dialogue (how could it not). It captures the claustrophobia of Whitehall and the sense of impending disaster, as Belgium falls and France teeters on the brink. It reminded me of the importance of those days, but it did not quite convince me. Did Halifax try and blackmail Churchill? Did Churchill blackmail Chamberlain? If so, one suspects they did it far more subtly than is conveyed here. But I suspect Sir Winston would be the first to acknowledge the difference between theatre and history.