Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Machin’s Churchill is a very hungry, ambitious caterpillar desperate to burst from his chrysalis.
Winston Churchill has got himself into a spot of bother. It’s 1899 and war is raging in South Africa between the British and the Boers. We find our hero far from the public gaze, in a hole and not a very nice hole to tell it plain. Never mind the future, the hero of Winston on the Run is a brash puppy, whelped by deceased political has-been Lord Randolph Churchill – known to have thought his eldest son an idle butterfly of the fashionable sort. The pampered sion singularly failed to restore the political credibility of his house by fumbling an assured success at the Oldham by-election.
And yet the young Winston is growing from the boy into the man. He is a veteran of numerous military campaigns dotted across the geopolitical landscape of the high Victorian period. He a published journalist, author and prominent critic of leading members of the imperial establishment. But such is the past. For the present, having escaped from a Boer POW camp, Winston is now holed up in a coal mine operated by an ex-pat of potentially uncertain loyalties. He cannot even smoke for fear of igniting the combustible vapours all around. Churchill is an actualised Schrodinger’s cat – will he survive or won’t he?
In the title role, Freddie Machin captures and distills the essence of Churchill at this moment of extreme crisis. Petulant, grandiose but much less than self-assured. Machin’s Churchill is a very hungry, ambitious caterpillar desperate to burst from his chrysalis. If the history written a hundred thousand years from now recalls any memory of Winston Churchill (arguably) it will be this – that he was too ignorant, too stubborn, too lacking in decorum to admit when he was beaten so as to retire gracefully from the field. In short that his vices, not his virtues were the basis of his greatness. In a world awash with portraits taken during the wilderness years, or of the of sixty minutes’ worth of distance run during the finest hour, here at last is a Fringe show showing us a totally different Churchill – one who is also exactly the same.
The set is superbly stark and unforgiving. It denies the subject any source of strength or comfort, forcing him to draw on his private reserves of inner strength. The moment early on when we were treated to a demonstration of the full gamut of possibilities of bucket-based latrinal relief afforded this reviewer a view that would not have spurred Clem Attlee into a burst of nationalisation. Similarly the final triumphant return to Oldham needs to be revisited, sped up and made to fully give off the sense that victory is as far from a South African coal mine as it is possible to be.
This is a production which will be increasingly familiar to Fringe goers thanks to a boisterous poster photograph. Yet, this is a thoughtful, elegant piece of theatre performed consistently at a very high level. More needs to be done to prepare the audience so that they don’t expect Flashman-esque shenanigans when what they will receive in the tin is even better than what is described on the label.