Three Days In May is set during the 3 crucial days in 1940 when Winston Churchill - wonderfully played by Warren Clarke - had just been appointed Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation. It is mainly set in the Cabinet Office at 10 Downing Street and shows the intensive discussions that took place before a decision was made as to how Britain was to proceed. An unexpected visit from Paul Reynaud - played by Timothy Knightly - shows that France is on the brink of surrender and he tries to persuade Churchill to join him in asking Mussolini to negotiate a peace treaty.
The weight of responsibility then falls on Churchill and his war cabinet: Neville Chamberlain, sensitively portrayed by Robert Demeger, Lord Halifax, played by Jeremy Clyde, the two Conservative members, and Clement Attlee (Michael Sheldon with Arthur Greenwood (Dicken Ashworth, the two Labour members. They discuss behind closed doors the prospect of suing for some sort of peace deal or going it alone against the Nazis.
I’m not quite sure what I expected when I came to watch this play – I love history, and thought the all-star cast would be a treat to watch – which they are! Expecting there to be quite a lot of action and bustle leading up to such an important decision, I was very wrong. It all happens in an extremely understated, almost conversational way, with no obvious sense of the massive importance of the decisions being made.
The historical figures are portrayed in a sensitive and thoughtful manner, which is not an easy task as the unfolding drama relies almost wholly on words and not action.
The story is narrated by Churchill’s young private secretary Jock Colville, played by James Alper, and shows the discussions at the full cabinet meeting and also the private discussions that took place between Churchill and the various different cabinet members. Ultimately the “casting vote” lies with Chamberlain who remains as party leader, and Churchill spends time persuading him to vote against the appeasement motion supported by Lord Halifax.
In retrospect the importance of this decision and the fact that it became a pivotal turning point in the war is obvious – these three days were followed by the incredible events of Dunkirk, Britain stood alone against the Nazis, and the rest as they say is history.
The set by Gary McCann is of necessity simple but very powerful with good use made of back projections of a world map showing the troop movements. Alan Strachan as the Director keeps the play moving with some very sensitive direction and does well to keep the audience interested – no mean feat in a play relying more on words than action.
All in all this is an interesting and informative evening. Like most people I had always been aware of the events that had taken place, but hadn’t really given much thought to how the decisions were reached, the weight of responsibility that lay on the leaders and how much soul searching was done to come to decisions which affected the whole nation – in fact some would say the whole world.
I would like to see more of an exploration into the characters of the various players in this drama – we never really find out their motivation for taking the stance they did, although author – Ben Brown - does allow us fleeting glimpses of the haunted feelings Chamberlain went through. In fairness however the play would be over long if this theme were developed – perhaps this paves the way for a future production?