Thursday, September 21

When Winston Went to War with the Wireless – Donmar Warehouse

Just like the BBC, which is the subject of this new play by Jack Thorne, both inform and entertain. It is set in the early days of the general strike in 1926 when the British Broadcasting Company, as it was then known, was in its formative days under the leadership of the redoubtable John Reith. Since the strike led to the temporary closure of all the print media, this provided a golden opportunity for the new broadcaster to become a premier news channel. This brought it into conflict with the government’s own alternative press media, the British Gazette, overseen by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Reith, played by Stephen Campbell Moore, is the central character of the play. He struggles both with trying to position the new company as an impartial media outlet in the face of severe government pressure, and the contradictions in his own complex private life. Campbell Moore gave a very impressive performance as a man who was much more conflicted and uncertain than Reith is often reported in the latter days as head of the corporation. Playing a character as well-known and distinctive as Winston Churchill is a challenge for any actor. Aidan Scarborough was excellent in the role, and he came across as a much less likeable and charismatic than he was in his later days as Prime Minister during the war. Thorne’s text emphasised his policy failures, drinking, and poor treatment of his long-suffering wife Clemmie. The casting of Haydn Gwynne as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was a surprise but worked remarkably well.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

The production of the show, overseen by director Katie Rudd, was excellent. She chose a basically bare set with a scaffold-like structure at the rear. Members of the cast appeared on this from time to time, playing musical instruments and illustrating the events going on with a range of manual sound effects, such as would have been used in the days of early radio. A large table on wheels with a chair was the only other significant prop, wheeled around by the cast to represent different scenes as required. The whole cast worked extremely well as an ensemble, most of them playing more than one part, as well as playing musical instruments and creating the sound effects.  Lighting and sound effects including strobe lighting were used effectively to demarcate the many short scenes, which followed one another seamlessly.

The play is extremely fast moving, frenetic at times, and there are numerous really lovely moments, such as some of the cameos of the early broadcasts. It would be worth seeing this play more than once in order to savour all the innovative staging effects.

This is a very fine piece of theatre, telling a really good story with well-drawn characters and excellent presentation. The major dilemma for a public service broadcaster of how to maintain impartiality whilst retaining support of the government in power was well illustrated, and resonates today, although Thorne’s text did not much enlighten the debate.

Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd

Reviewed: 13th June 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.