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Review Round-up: Three Days in May Wins Plaudits

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Ben Brown's political thriller Three Days in May opened to London critics last night (2 November 2011, previews from 31 October) at Trafalgar Studios 1.

In May 1940, the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Warren Clarke) has urgently assembled the British war cabinet to attempt negotiations with Fascist and Nazi leaders. Three Days in May takes us to the heart of negotiations during the three most pivotal days in British History.

Three Days in May continues until 3 March 2012 (as part of a national tour) and also features Jeremy Clyde as Lord Halifax and Robert Demeger as Neville Chamberlain.

Michael Coveney

"It’s a sort of cliff-hanger – 'the tightest corner for Great Britain since 1066,' remarks the lizard-like Lord Halifax — in Ben Brown’s efficiently written waistcoat and watch-chain drama ... And the significance of what doesn’t happen is awkwardly underlined by the narrator/commentator, the young secretary Jock Colville ... the glowering, sweating, ferocious bulldog figure of Warren Clarke’s Churchill chairs the debate with surprising patience ... Alan Strachan’s careful production gives full value to the slightest nuance in argument ... but there’s something incurably inert about the piece until we hear what we’ve come for: Churchill, on his feet, addressing the House. At last, the rhetoric kicks in, and the phrases roll out ...  The play is far less compelling, and far less informative, than last year’s Orange Tree collaboration between Brown and Strachan on The Promise ... But that play didn’t have the gargantuan presence of Warren Clarke, whose patriotically overpowering and war-mongering Winnie ... lies meatily half-way between Timothy Spall’s enjoyably coarse knockabout version in The King’s Speech ..."

Charles Spencer

"Brown has set himself a hard task with a play which largely consists of a group of elderly men sitting in a room and debating, in Churchill’s later phrase, whether it would be better 'to jaw-jaw than to war-war' ...The jawing never stops, and the action rarely gets livelier than Churchill making himself a whisky and soda or lighting a cigar. Nevertheless the play proves both riveting and moving, even though one knows how it will all pan out. We are gently spoon-fed a great deal of background information by the engaging young actor, James Alper ... And the tussle between Churchill ... and Lord Halifax ... proves genuinely gripping. Watching Alan Strachan’s lucid and absorbing staging, one genuinely feels that this is what it might have been like in the inner sanctum of power as Britain braced itself to stand alone ... The production was always going to stand or fall with the actor playing Churchill, and Warren Clarke doesn’t disappoint. He captures that disconcerting mixture of the bulldog and the baby in the great Prime Minister’s physiognomy, and his impersonation of the slurring, rumbling voice, seasoned by cigar smoke and marinated in strong liquor, is equally persuasive ... Robert Demeger touchingly conveys the exhaustion and the dented pride of Chamberlain, and Jeremy Clyde’s posh, cunning, and glibly fluent Lord Halifax put one disconcertingly in mind of some of today’s top Tories. Nevertheless this is one of those all too rare evenings of theatre that make one feel genuinely proud to be British."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"A notable recent attempt came from Timothy Spall in The King's Speech - but now it is Warren Clarke's turn, in his first stage outing for more than a decade. He has got that unmistakable voice just right, as well as the thrust-forward lower lip ... It is hardly a dynamic play that Ben Brown has written - or that director Alan Strachan has staged - but a wordy and worthy drama of the' men in suits sitting around a table looking worried' genre. Clarke has fun with Churchill's divide-and-rule manoeuvre on Chamberlain and Halifax, and there is a particularly cherishable exchange in which Chamberlain and Churchill duke it out over the titles of their respective books. The Struggle For Peace and While England Slept provide a nifty summation of the bind in which the men currently find themselves. Opening and closing narration from Churchill's private secretary Jock Colville (James Alper) smacks a little too much of a history lesson but at least it is one we haven't sat through many times before."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Brown’s play ... is the first dramatisation of those days. It is gimmick-free, unadorned storytelling ... So the producer Bill Kenwright is brave to hazard a large, unsubsidised, West End theatre on a new work involving, to be frank, five old men sitting at a table and young Jock Colville the secretary (James Alper) as occasional narrator. No women, fighting, bestseller or movie tie-in, no screen megastars (though Warren 'Inspector Dalziel' Clarke is Churchill). Gary McCann’s thoughtful set uses the old map of Europe as floor and backdrop ('Italian Libya' is half the doorway), and on to this is sometimes projected a searchlight beam, an outline of Parliament, or London summer trees. Clarke is a solid Churchill, but it is the interplay of the three Tories that fascinates: Robert Demeger, a dead ringer for Chamberlain with defeated moustache and mournful eyes, rises to unexpected dignity as he changes sides, telling the scornful Halifax (Jeremy Clyde) how his youth as a failed sisal farmer in the tropics taught him the merit of trying, even to ultimate failure ... It kept me riveted by its very un-theatricality. I felt I was in the room, and glad to be there. Churchill was justified, we know that now. But if it had gone the other way, as he tells Parliament, 'Nations which go down fighting, rise again'. Which may not be true, but is splendid."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Three Days In May is not for airheads. The West End’s hen parties will find it dry. But anyone interested in history or politics is in for a satisfying, informative evening. Warren Clarke’s Churchill is a little hard to follow at times, so heavy is his jowly, part-impeded speech. He almost sounds more like legendary newspaperman Bill Deedes than Churchill. But Mr Clarke does reasonably well in creating a believable figure. This Churchill is more than a mere impression. Mr Clarke is helped by some really good support. Robert Demeger is brilliantly desiccated and haughty as Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax ... Some music might have evoked the period. I could also have done with some more characters. If this show has a fault it is that it feels maybe a little mean-budgeted. The whole thing could be more theatrical. Does the tale not cry out for an appearance, at very least, by the egregious U.S. ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy? But don’t let me deter you. This is serious work, historically gripping, despatched with cigar-sucking aplomb."

- Natalie Generalovich


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