Happy Warriors

James Hugh Macdonald
Wild Thyme Productions
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Simon Pontin as Major Randolph Churchill, Martha Dancy as Zora Panic and Neil Chinneck as Captain Evelyn Waugh Credit: Mitzi de Margary
Simon Pontin as Major Randolph Churchill and Neil Chinneck as Captain Evelyn Waugh Credit: Mitzi de Margary

In 1944, during the Second World War, when Josip Broz Tito was leading the Yugoslav guerrilla resistance to Germany, Winston Churchill sent a military mission to Marshal Tito to provide support and encouragement. The Prime Minister’s son Randolph, then a Major, was posted there and asked for some company, suggesting novelist Evelyn Waugh, then holding the more junior rank of Captain. In 1944 they were both in Croatia.

So much is fact; James Hugh Macdonald’s play imagines the rest. I don’t know whether the 91-year-old dramatist actually knew them or Yugoslavia but he was a serving soldier. His satirical portrait of these two together has the ring of truth, farcical though it may seem, but he opens it as lively caricature with a speech to the heavens by the young Yugoslav partisan delegated to be their cook-housekeeper.

Self-styled the worst cook in the country, Zora Panic is a dedicated Communist idealist who is eager to be out with her gun against the enemy but forced to wait on a couple of English aristocrats who represent everything she abhors. To the rumble of thunder and lightning flashes she begs that will strike them and free her from having to serve them.

Martha Dancy makes Zora a spirited young woman raging against her situation, saluting a photograph of Marshal Tito with the same fine comedic timing as she doles out the slop she serves up. At the same time, she manages to suggest the sincerity of her convictions.

Set against her patriotism is a portrait off upper-crust decadence with Randolph Churchill sending requests for personal drops of whisky and cigars among the military supplies being parachuted in to pass on to the partisans.

Simon Pontin plays the pompous and lazy aristocrat as though to the manner born with just a touch of the charm that he thinks makes him such a hit with the ladies. In small doses, he might be good company but Captain Waugh has had enough: if just for one day Randolph would shut up. Meanwhile, Evelyn (whose billet is the stable) gets sent off to spend the night cold and wet on the mountain every time there’s a drop while Randolph stays behind in comfort, eating the last of the marmalade and diving into a sandbagged trench whenever a German plane flies.

Neil Chinneck’s Evelyn Waugh has clearly moved in the same social circles and captures his discomfort as Randolph pulls rank. He’s treated like the fag to a bossy boy at boarding school (Waugh was at Lancing, Churchill at Eton). Though Chinneck gains sympathy and may put the audience on his side, what irritates Waugh is what the audience enjoys.

There isn’t much more to Macdonald’s play than the constant badinage between these two toffs but it is interrupted by just sufficient incident or Zora’s intervention to prevent it being tiresome. It is hardly Wildean wit but these broadly comic performances are amusing and there is some added pleasure in the way this picture of a privileged twit also seems to mock some rather similar figures on the current political scene.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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