Theatre Review: Three Days In May at the Trafalgar Studios

More than cigars and quotes as Churchill is brought to life during three days that changed history

There are two ways of playing Winston Churchill.

The first is to be fortunate enough to look uncannily like him and get away with smoking a big cigar and uttering a few of his most famous quotes.

The second is to act your socks off, dig a little deeper and bring the man’s legend to life.

For Warren Clarke, back on the West End stage for the first time in a decade, it is definitely the latter and the wartime premier’s personality leaps off the stage in this magnificent production.

The cigars and the drink and the clothes are the very picture of Churchill, but it is Clarke’s ability to get beneath the man’s skin that is so inspiring.

He leads a small cast that succeeds through the strength of Ben Brown’s script in turning a debate between five men sitting round a table into a gripping drama.

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The “Three Days In May” of the title refer to May 26, 27 and 28, 1940. German troops have penned in the French, Belgian and British forces, where their only line of action is a retreat and evacuation from Dunkirk.

French Premier Paul Reynaud (Timothy Knightley) visits Churchill to suggest peace with Germany, using Mussolini as negotiator.

The play then unravels the story, long hidden, of the war cabinet discussions on those momentous three days where the decision has to be made between a humiliation of peace and the terrors of war.

Seated around the table with him are four men on whom the future of the world depends.

To Churchill’s right are, Neville Chamberlain (Robert Demeger), recently resigned as PM, but still leader of the Conservative party, and Lord Halifax (Jeremy Clyde), Foreign Secretary who turned down the “top job” in Churchill’s favour.

To the Prime Minister’s left are Clement Attlee (Michael Sheldon), Labour Party leader and deputy prime minister, and Arthur Greenwood (Dicken Ashworth), Labour’s deputy leader.

The Labour pair are in favour of war, but Churchill needs to carry Chamberlain and Halifax with him to maintain the nation’s resolve.

Jeremy Clyde keeps his character carefully poised on the boundary between a patronising intellectual and a supercilious aristocrat.

But in the end, Warren Clarke shows Churchill’s manipulative side by getting his right-hand colleagues to give him their support.

Robert Demeger, looking uncannily like the real Chamberlain, gives the audience a moving display when telling Halifax why he has abandoned any hope of peace.

* Three Days In May is showing at the Trafalgar Studios 1, Whitehall, SW1A, until Saturday, March 3.