Edinburgh Fringe 2013
"Once-a-year the chimes of Big Ben strike thirteen and Sir Winston Churchill’s statue reanimates to indulge the three great passions of his namesake: scotch, cigars and listening to himself speak. Written and performed by Pip Utton, this enchanted hour moves swiftly beyond caricature and becomes an enthralling exploration of the life and character of a capricious historical giant."
Winston Churchill was at once egocentric and enthralling. It’s appropriate then for the audience to enter and see Pip Utton, erect and frozen atop a small plinth, imitating the unmistakable posture of defiance captured by Churchill’s Parliament Square statue.
As the 1940‘s music fades, Big Ben strikes thirteen and, finger by finger, the statue awakens, in a typically peevish mood – everyday people pass him by, seldom knowing anything more about him than what a mere 100 word dedication contains. So begins an hour with the reanimated Churchill wanting to flesh out his life and remedy the sorry ignorance that the public finds itself in.
The stage, set before a towering black curtain with exposed white walls next to it, is arranged in faux ministerial style with an oak desk populated by a picture of Churchill’s spouse, a modern inexpensive globe, lamp, and of course, full decanter. The presentation is at first disappointing for an atmospheric performance as the musical prelude initially suggested.
As the lights come on, Utton’s precision sharp movements as Churchill are cast in shadow onto the white wall behind at the angle the statue exists in the public memory. The result is a beautifully balletic presentation of Utton’s take on Churchill in the literal shadow of the man himself. The result is uncanny. The realisation quickly dawns that the staging and props are deliberately indicative for the show’s self-awareness and confidence: close approximations, never the real thing.
Beginning in monologue about Churchill’s youth, his political career and family, Utton’s writing demonstrates a supremely confident grasp of not just the tonnage of Churchill anecdotage that exists, but the personal, as well as tragic, elements to his life.
The mood of the audience moves in tandem as Utton explores these elements, and it is testament to his performance/writing that he so ably blends his own humour with the well and lesser known Churchill stories and jokes. Only the occasional neologism gives the game away as to which is which. To make Churchill humorous, but never a parody, for a modern audience is impressive and the audience were visibly delighted.
One of the most successful parts of Utton’s performance is the wildly oscillating manner, almost scatterbrained way, his Churchill clumsily tries to move onto a humorous story or unrelated subject after giving genuinely moving accounts of his love for his wife, or the immense hurt he feels about his father’s disappointment in him. This naturally culminates in a Churchill speech with excellent use of patriotic music, feeling as if it were from a need to again reassert his defiance against his own emotions and ruminations, if not the enemy.
From the onset Utton is confident in his mission to challenge cliché. The writing is crisp and naturally tailored to the characteristics known and not so well-known about Churchill. Neatly blending anecdotage, research and an obvious enthusiasm for subject, Utton has produced a show which is a refreshing take on Winston Churchill.