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FringeReview UK 2023

When Winston Went to War With the Wireless

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: Biographical Drama, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Political, Theatre, Verbatim Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

An absorbing, layered, superbly entertaining two-and-a-half hours that couldn’t be more relevant. Set against The Motive and the Cue, it also proves how history allows Jack Thorne to be even more versatile than we imagined.

Directed by Katy Rudd, Set & Costume Designer Laura Hopkins, Lighting Designer Howard Hudson, Sound Designer Ben & Max Ringham, Composer Gary Yershon, Movement Director Scott Graham, Video  Designer and Animator Andrej Goulding, Casting Anna Cooper CDG.

Foley Consultant Tom Espiner, Production Manager Jim Leaver, Costumer Supervisor Isa Aitken, Props Supervisor Rachel Middlemore for Propworks, Props Runner Lauren Thompson for Propworks, Voice Coach Charlie Hughes D’aeth, Dialect Coach Penny Dyer, Wigs, Hair and Make-Up Supervisor Sharon Pearson, Wigs, Hair and Make-Up Manager Keisha Banya

Resident Assistant Director Adam Karim, Assistant Set & Costume Designer Jingyi, Assistant Lighting Designer Carey Chomsoonthorn, Associate Sound Designer Ellie Isherwood. Assistant Sound Designer Raffaela Pancucci

CSM Robert Perkins, DSM Maria Gibbons, ASM Devon James-Bowen

Till July 29th


No sooner than The Motive and the Cue beds in at the National, Jack Thorne’s When Winston Went to War With the Wireless opens at the Donmar directed by Katy Rudd.

This year the Donmar seems ceaselessly rowing back to the past in its settings, mostly with searing contemporary relevance. Watch on the Rhine, written and set in 1941, Trouble in Butetown, set in 1943, Private Lives 1930 and here, Thorne’s 1926 play, set 38 years before his National drama with a very different pair of historical protagonists, infinitely more antagonistic.

John Reith (Stephen Campbell-Moore) the still-emerging general Manager of the BBC, itself not yet four years old, finds himself at odds during the 1926 General Strike with the Conservative government. Specifically the Chancellor who thinks he’s already Prime Minister: Winston Churchill (Adrian Scarborough), doing his best to brush aside the niggling fact that Stanley Baldwin (Haydn Gwynne) accidentally fills that post.

Himself a recent returner from the Liberals (“I was till recently a Liberal. I know how they howl”) Churchill’s fighting his own party, though little of that emerges here. The blistering comparison with the original broadcaster bully with a more recent one who admires him, glares balefully after nearly a century. The difference is that the original’s up against a broadcasting bully towering six foot six, who frightens his own staff.  No chance of absolute obedience after civilised discussion here.

Peter Eckersley (Shubham Sarif) certainly keeps his head up, since he built the BBC before Reith arrived. But – as portrayed with watchful understatement by Sarif, he knows Reith’s power, and recognises it as essential to the BBC’s survival. He thus relies on Reith, perhaps too much.

As perhaps do union leaders like Ernest Bevin (Kevin McMonagle), buttonholing Reith and demanding he broadcasts truth to power. A dizzying number of tiny parts almost flash-dancing on and offstage, in the guise of  impoverished people, and others, do the same and swell the sense of 1926

Laura Hopkins has crafted an enticing set out of almost Yves Tanguy-like surrealism. Against a Prussian blue lighting (Howard Hudson) the brickwork and individually-curated old radio objects are highlighted, sometimes suspended, with small platforms and gantries where at the start we’re treated to a sonic spectacular of coal-mining (hammers wielded) with Ben and Max Ringham’s sound, and quite soon Gary Yershon’s compositions.

These, highlighting the BBC singing and light entertainment culture with a gallimaufry of walk-ons, recruits them to some wondrous and wondrously awful lyrics too. There’s even a song-and-dance in the interval with period-inflected lyrics.

They’re performed by Seb Philpott (also Speaker of the House), Elliott Rennie (also union leader Arthur Pugh) as well as Kitty Archer (also PA to Reith Isabel Shields, with a long, telling scene at the end) and with singing from Laura Rogers apart from her role as announcer Amelia Johnson enjoys an acidly witty Clemmie Churchill: particularly when Gwynne’s Baldwin fetches up at their home to make the broadcast to address the strike. “your prime minister ids occasionally capable of it” Baldwin fires back at Churchill’s surprise he can express anything to the purpose.

The flow in that scene is telling, where Gwynne’s Baldwin steadies an authority Churchill’s always trying to whisk away. Churchill a channelled by Adrian Scarborough is an impelling force not many notches down from Simon Russell Beale’s Stalin in Collaborators back in 2011. Scarborough in fact absorbs many recognizable traits without seeming in the least mannered.

As you’d expect he doesn’t mimic, he conveys the force and none-too-subtle bullying of Churchill who can’t even concede the archbishop of Canterbury might be a benign presence. Not that Conservatives think he is either.

The paranoia over Labour, the Reds, the dangers of the strike and Thorne’s graphic representations of this in Andrej Goulding’s video  design and animation really projects the dilemmas faced by liberals in the face of absolutism that has nothing to do with an imagined Soviet Union takeover.  However far the communist party was funded.

It speaks more to guilt and fear over starving a population. In the words of George V’s treacherous Secretary over rescuing Nicholas II’s family in 1917. “The mob will tear us to pieces.”

The set-tos with Campbell-Moore’s Reith, partly conveyed through the obedient machinations of JCC Davidson (Ravin J Ganatra., firt role), is like a series of boxing bouts, laced with whisky – the way the glass is wielded in each bout’s expressive of where Reith or Churchill end up, and in which corner. The most interesting is when Churchill accesses his father’s capacities, and wields metaphor. “The glass globe waits, Mr Reith.” Thorne catches the manner and Scarborough never underscores it, and the stand-offs with Campbell-Moore are thrilling and a bit sickening too.

The most interesting relationships though are those with Reith: decidedly secular and sacred. Reith’s former lover Charlie Bowser (Luke Newberry, also the recording Engineer) appears as a very active wraith, causing Campbell-Moore to nearly leap out of his suit and skin as they dive naked into water – in Reith’s imagination, from his desk. Newberry, also laconic and truculent as the Engineer hits both the cajoling spontaneity Reith craves and anguish when Reith does something unexpected.

We realise this is a triangle, and not quite what we expect. It’s Charlie who decides to go straight and marry Muriel Reith (Miriam Haque), and somehow Reith poaches her through sheer bullying force (we assume) Haque shows Muriel’s desperate desire to be acknowledged, let alone loved, bringing cheese sandwiches to his office, finding him up late after another faithless memory of Charlie. But it’s Muriel who mentions him; you register the hurt. Charlie’s no longer there, and sexuality aside, feel he and Muriel might have been infinitely happier.

The crux – having been browbeaten into declining Ganatra’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is Campbell-Moore’s seeking guidance and absolution from a fellow-Christian. The scenes here, when Gantara’s ecclesiastic probes Reith’s conscience is telling, and Reith’s answer, as announced by Campbell-Moore, telling.

The legacy, with end-titles adding that after all Churchill did advocate independent broadcasting, signing it off in 1954- having admitted it was repellent and wielding it as a threat – is a reminder that not even national heroes are immune to bad faith, if arguably here not entirely bad decisions, as well as bullying duplicity and absolutism. And Reith’s absolutism, ironically, has pushed th dial against state broadcaster to national one for nearly a century.

However long that remains is up to us. It should be remembered this wasn’t the only time Churchill quietly went to war with the BBC. In 1940 he had J. B .Priestley’s Fireside Chats taken off as they were both dangerously socialist (and indeed, Priestley’s vision did in part emerge in the 1945 election alongside An Inspector Calls) and – more popular than Churchill himself. That he couldn’t abide.

An absorbing, layered, superbly entertaining two-and-a-half hours that couldn’t be more relevant. Set against The Motive and the Cue, it also proves how history allows Thorne to be even more versatile than we imagined.