Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Churchill

Tony Tortora
New End Theatre Beyond in association with The Carriageworks Theatre Leeds
The Carriageworks, Leeds

Jeremy Dobbs (Churchill) and Michael Forrest (Hitler) Credit: Matt Tullett

Tony Tortora is a new, mature writer who brings intelligence and wit to a quite learned exploitation of that horny old dramatic situation—‘the waiting room to heaven or hell’.

The play starts with Howes (Stephen Bellamy), a rather scruffy manservant, and Annie (Carolyn Eden), an exceptionally dated blunt-yet-perky waitress, preparing a room for we-know-who (the clue is in the title). This opening scene runs on and on and needs serious editing. The acting is good, but these are wind-up, stock characters with no depth or indeed interest. Perhaps the director is telling us something.

Enter Churchill (Jeremy Dobbs) and the play starts. Dobbs remains silent for some time, flinching and hand-tapping in his wheel chair as the fussy Howes introduces him to his new environment. This is a masterclass on how to hold attention and build character without dialogue: Dobbs has won us over and convinced us of his portrayal before he utters a word. Superb. His opening lines are delivered not in the Churchillian growl, but with depth of feeling and a confusion that we sense he will overcome. And they are very good opening lines concerning his sunhat, which he pulls from his head and inspects with bemused intensity. Why is he wearing it indoors, what’s happened etc. The play is underway.

After a certain amount of business, Hitler (Michael Forrest) steps on stage and we are then treated to an extended sequence of dramatized character analysis and debate. Tortora does not take the easy option; there are times when Hitler is very convincing. And, if at time a little over-wordy, we are treated to an insightful and interesting exchange which takes us to the end of the performance.

But a long sequence of exchanges is not a play. These two characters do not seem at all concerned about what is in store for them. There is an abundance of dramatic moments, but no dramatic structure. Luckily, Tortora has given Hitler and Churchill words (sometimes their own) and sometimes actions, which grip us. He has also given production pointers—‘everything is grey’, Churchill complains. And what a whacky show this would be if everything was grey and colour was in the presently lacklustre lighting.

And what an excellent play this would be with a more forceful playing of the dramatic structure. Or if we had fewer words and greater reliance on silent action and reaction. There would lie revealed humour.

Indeed, for me, the major flaw in this production is that it fails to explore the laugh lines which are liberally scattered throughout the text. Perhaps director Richard Bonham decided to leave the comedy to his two rude mechanicals and let the historical figures get on with the debate. But the sharp lines are there and really should be played as such; without laughter the pathos and pain become shallow.

I found the end of the play a little confusing. Churchill is taken off to another place, Hitler has more time to spend with the silly servants. Exactly why this happens I’m not sure. But a splendid touch was Churchill’s delight when he discovered that he had regained the use of his left hand (he would be able to paint again). I half wanted him to give us the V sign before trundling off (and I did want some bright lights for him to wheel into).

The whole feels as it if needs putting in a bag and shaking up prior to another week or so of workshopping. There is time for this before the show opens at the Arts Depot on the 23 July. And even if no structural changes are made, an entertaining script and Jeremy Dobbs’s delightful, juicy rendition of WC are well worth a visit.

Reviewer: Ray Brown