What would Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler say to each other if they met face to face at the end of their lives? This is the intriguing and potentially thought-provoking premise of Tony Tortora's Churchill. Unfortunately, the production, by Brian Daniels and New End Theatre Beyond, fails to fulfil this idea in any meaningful way.
The story takes place in a well-furnished limbo as Churchill, recently deceased, finds himself waiting for ascent to heaven. For reasons unexplained, his roommate in this afterlife way-station is long-term resident, Hitler, who is no doubt headed for warmer climes down below (why the delay?). What follows is two hours of conversation, about such things as leadership, art and war, with Churchill making little headway in his attempts to force Hitler into seeing the error of his ways.
As Sir Winston, Jeremy Dobbs is suitably curmudgeonly, and there are hints of a past greatness, tempered with age, that grows stronger throughout. Michael Forrest, decked out in full Nazi uniform, has an uphill battle on his hands as a shouty, petulant Fuhrer; but there are moments of humanity, which is no mean feat when you're sporting a Swastika on your arm. The cast is rounded out by Stephen Bellamy and Carolyn Eden as Churchill's somewhat superfluous afterlife servants, who seem to be there largely to relay exposition.
Given all its whimsical distractions, the main problem with Churchill is its tone. This play should be dark and uncomfortable viewing. Two figures, one revered; the other reviled, caught briefly in purgatory, facing their day of judgement and forced to confront their actions. One of these men is regarded a hero; the other a byword for all that's evil. But there are grey areas and it's these that need exploring. However, what we get here is smatterings of Cole Porter and servants bursting in with tea trolleys.
It's particularly frustrating as, given mankind's inability to learn from history, the ideological issues this play touches on could have been expanded to make it brutally relevant in today's terror-fuelled world. Both sides in any war believe they are acting in the greater good for a higher cause they have committed their lives to; yet one side is often cast as evil and the other great. But can the deaths of large numbers of innocent people ever be justified, whatever the end goal? These issues are skirted around, with Churchill recalling his time in the army when he got his hands dirty, but the play always breaks away from this intensity and returns to a light-hearted, British sitcom feel, which is frustrating and a missed opportunity.
To be fair, any writer who attempts to portray Hitler has a tough challenge, and the problem here is that it's hard to know what emotions are being evoked. Having the man responsible for so much evil whinging about being refused a place in art school or weeping over his decision to spare his beloved Jewish cook the fate he inflicted on millions of others does nothing when your eyes constantly drift to that Swastika and everything it represents.
Overall, this is an idea that could have been interpreted in any number of ways, but it just feels too light to have any real depth. While there's undoubtedly an interesting conversation to be had here; unfortunately, this isn't it.