The hyperbole comes direct from the script, which describes the three days – in which new Prime Minister Churchill and his War Cabinet debated, then rejected, a possible peace deal with Hitler – as “intense, frightening and momentous”.
With such a gripping premise and so climactic a conclusion, it seems odd, then, that Ben Brown’s play manages to be so un-dramatic and, frankly, rather dull.
The basic set-up – five men sitting round a table talking – is unhelpful, of course, but Brown does himself no favours with a leaden framing device in which Churchill’s private secretary introduces both characters and action in a kind of “Previously in World War Two…” opening scene.
In fact, there’s a lot of narrative exposition going on, with people explaining to each other things they already know purely for the benefit of the audience, and slowing things down interminably in the process.
But there’s plenty of fine acting talent on stage, with a central star turn from Warren Clarke, returning to the theatre after more than a decade away. His Churchill is gruff, occasionally unintelligible but essentially heroic, a point of calm around which other voices exchange their variety of viewpoints.
Jeremy Clyde as the appeasing Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax is not given enough light and shade to reveal his character, although Robert Demeger’s Chamberlain conveys something of his struggle with personal demons. By contrast, the Labour leaders in the coalition cabinet, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, are no more than one-dimensional ciphers.
It’s a fascinating and historically gigantic occasion that receives a disappointingly static and stodgy production by director Alan Strachan. For students of politics and war, it’s a safe and solid hagiography of Churchill’s leadership. As theatre, it’s far less successful.