Brighton Fringe 2021
Written and Directed by David Robinson, with Sound by Stephen Robinson and Design Michael Taylor, at the Rialto Theatre. To June 9th 2021 .
So the voice that launched the Second World War as a period musical? David Robinson’s Chamberlain: Peace in Our Time is a more than touching, original and memorable evocation of a few vital minutes in the Cabinet Room before 11am Sunday September 3rd 1939 as PM Neville Chamberlain, accompanied by PPS Jack Colville (strikes a chord?) ready themselves with the BBC sound checks on one side and Mrs Chamberlain taking to bed with sandwiches on the other.
Set on the Rialto’s raised stage this is a 55-minute show beautifully tailored with songs, put on by the BBC. Their decision? Light music to quell the masses – Tom Burke will entertain. Also directed by David Robinson, with evocative sound by Stephen Robinson and designed by Michael Taylor with a red-clothed table, two chairs, a table microphone and full stand one for Freddy Goymer’s incarnation as that BBC light baritone Tom Burke.
First presented at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 it’s had sell-out revivals, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a deft history lesson with songs, a sinewy persuasion that the vilified ‘appeaser’ – we get a flashback to that a famous ‘peace in our time’ speech off an aeroplane in October 1938 – was doing his best, and that he was ‘the right man at the wrong time’. And of all his political family he was the one to make it to the top. For three years. Judge here for yourself. Historically it’s as deft as that. But it’s entertainment too.
Freddy Goymer’s otherwise loyal, steadfast and where needed critical PPS Jack Colville (1915-87). Ho proves truly sympathetic as a character, and to his PM. As he did to the next. If Colville’s name seems familiar it’s because we associate it with Winston Churchill a few months on, particularly Colville’s famous diaries, the basis of the play Three Days in May and much of the evidence we have for how that crucial period of May-June 1940 unfolded, and the decisions made.
Here, with a light touch Robinson’s taking Colville back to his slightly earlier self, the previous PM too already solicitous for Colville’s future – as he prophesies in just a few months – with Churchill. A man with whom Chamberlain’s obsessed. ‘But you’re the man now’ Colville attempts to bring Chamberlain out of his nemesis. It’s a touching subtext never underscored even in the afterword spoken by David Leeson’s convincingly gruff-tender/elegaic Neville Chamberlain. A man who had he followed Churchill not preceded him, he believes, would have been resoundingly successful. But as we know the Conservatives weren’t needed in 1945, and Chamberlain wasn’t there.
The core of the narrative drama of this work is the relationship Goymer and Leesons strike up as between a young man, twenty-four, and an ailing elder statesman to whom he talks truth to when needed.
That’s in between singing placebos into the microphone. As Burke Goymer’s own light baritone and sprach elements are entirely winning, a warm hug of a voce that really conveys the period nimbus and vocal projection and a fresh engagement with classics sometimes designed for sopranos. Two standards we associate with Vera Lynn. This reappropriation is timely and enlightening – it’s ordinary enough and with just one singer we’re refracted a kind of elegy.
‘When the Lights Come on again all over the world’ looks forward to the end of the war before we’ve properly got into it, and Goymer delights in the lift of ‘all over’ at his ringing higher tessitura. Then Lynn’s standard ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ after more of the drama again allows Goymer his soaring range.
We’re also treated after a little bit of Chamberlain’s domestic life to the comical Novello ‘And her mother came too’ which ends on a Pythonesque- sketched thought of the mother-in-law accompanying the young couple to bed (as in building a model of Cutty Sark in the dark) – not to mention the brother on the golf course.
At the same time Leeson attempts a shot about the WW1 song and the Sergeant Major’ to his genteelly bi-polar exuberant and gregarious wife Anne, with whom he has two children, a son of service age. How did she tke it?’ asks Colville diplomatically. Chamberlain’s wife never echoes her husband’s anxious endearments with a formulaic ’not now’ or to anything else ‘I’ll have it later…’ That’s for the beef and tomato sandwiches, or husband.
And… she’s been redecorating No. 10. That detail, this season, raises a particular laugh.
We’re deep into the haverings of past regrets – 1938 – and present warnings when ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire’ wants to set a flame in your heart, an image used as title by Andrew Greig and Kathleen Jamie in their collaborative poems between a Battle of Britain pilot and his lover in 1986.
‘I’ll be seeing you’ again aches with the prologues of war. And then an unmistakably wartime song ‘Till the lights of London shine again’ once more dispatched by Goymer as we fill in to wait whilst the 11.15am broadcast is set up and Goymer flits between Burke and his PPS self gratefully downing some of Chamberlain’s single malt, a late taste introduced to him by his brother. Goymer’s adroit at pointing that eager professional singer face, then the thoughtful pause of Colville’s character, already grazing war diaries across his forehead.
We get Chamberlain’s life and ambitions rising to Mayor of Birmingham and then outsoaring his elder brother Austin who dying, just missed Neville’s making it to No 10 after a belated, then meteoric career: elected MP in 1919 at nearly 50 (the oldest ever MP to be elected who becomes a PM), he’s quickly promoted and Chancellor by 1931.
As Churchill gathers himself in the outer room and is put off till after the broadcast (he wanted to muscle in earlier) Chamberlain prophesies how quickly Churchill will take over, for the war he’s been frothing fr for years. It proves more complex than that, and Halifax the Foreign secretary arch-appeaser who had to be outflanked by Chamberlain alter on and was the official choice for succession, isn’t mentioned. That works here. We’re focused on Chamberlain, his aloof exterior as Colville notes, and his rarely expressed warmth which is fulsome once he lets you in – and very few, like Colville were let in, as the PPS again notes.
There were again more historical consequences of this, freezing out Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden whose job it was to negotiate and report his nominally key role, and decision making which proves disastrous. But her it’s streamlined and in essentials all there. And we’ve never seen Chamberlain’s touching solicitude for Colville’s position. ‘I’ll put a word in to Winston’ and we know all that ensued: a detailed intimate astonishingly frank set of diaries which Colville wasn’t allowed to in fact to make, and which were released posthumously. Leeson captures to perfection the deep pathos of Chamberlain, his softly spoken despairs, hard-earned firmness, mix of aloof puzzlement and wincing pain.
Finally Goymer, so consummately youthful with Colville’s rapidly-developing old head, slips seamlessly into the eager young pro singer Burke; and lifts in a last gentle, characterful soaring for that iconic Lynn standard ‘We’ll meet again’ as you know the lights are again going out over Europe.
Those diaries of Jack ‘Jock’ Colville are also important too in proving that Churchill faced a rebellion by Tories who wanted peace with Hitler, unlike labour and the Liberals. Spoiler alert: it was Chamberlain – still Conservative Leader, if not PM – who faced them down: first Halifax, and then stood by Churchill who initially praised him as Churchill ‘sent the English language into battle.’ Chamberlain, not told he had stomach cancer, died still leader of his party, still standing by Churchill, in November 1940. Having praised him for a long time Churchill literally rewrote history – he got the Nobel for it – and wrote out his thanks, erasing Chamberlain’s contribution.
There’s a fine coda after applause where Leeson – still masterly and strikingly recalling his subject, with his stooping frock coat attire – signs a coda to Chamberlain’s life. Perhaps – despite the forlorn plea to Colville that he might be better remembered, as in a pub name – this show does a little to redress that. Even if there aren’t any pubs unlike of course The Churchill, amusingly prophesied here.
The show records a moment that changed the world, as men of profound peace – one of them aloof, out of a depth only dictators wrongly thought they could sound – wrestle with catastrophe. It’s ultimately tragic, but here too is charming in the deepest sense; a light-filled small gem of a show, tuning into wireless crystals of a lost world.