‘robustly witty and sharply cruel … ‘
Based on a true story, the play features an imagined re-construction of the witty repartee between Winston Churchill’s son Randolph and eminent writer Evelyn Waugh during their time billeted together in a farmhouse in Croatia during WW2.
The facts are that Churchill sent his son Major Randolph Churchill to Yugoslavia, to help boost Tito’s forces and sap Hitler’s strength. Randolph, known to be very proud of his intellect and scathing of his current company, requested that Captain Evelyn Waugh join him there. Yet, the two men were entirely incompatible and antagonistic towards each other.
The play is written by 91-year-old playwright James Hugh Macdonald. He had a military career, before going up to Oxford. This was followed by entry into the Diplomatic Service, and later the Foreign Service and Civil Service, before holding various university posts. He has had an extremely distinguished career and is now conquering the difficult art form of playwriting. It’s a piece of cake for him, and a delicious confection at that.
Macdonald’s writing is well constructed, elegant, and informed. The exchanges he has created between the two men are robustly witty and sharply cruel. The producer, Joan Lane, (who originally trained as a speech and language therapist), is known for having developed the film ‘The King’s Speech’. Could this play be similarly developed?
Two intriguing questions arise on which the plot could hinge. One of these being the question of why Churchill sent his son on this assignment and the other is why Randolph particularly wanted Evelyn Waugh to join him (especially considering Waugh was known to be a difficult man). Several possibilities to these questions are suggested within the play but we are left to guess the truth. Whilst this is left open, the other plot strand provides the through line of the play.
The third member of the cast, is a young woman who is forced to be their cook, by the Partisans, before being allowed to join the guerrilla forces. She is unwilling to serve these two ‘toffs’; she has bound her breasts and is preparing herself to fight. Profligate Randolph is intent on seducing her (its not completely clear whether he succeeds) but Waugh point’s out that he is married.
The final scene in which Randolph Churchill gets his comeuppance is a lovely piece of poetic justice. It could just as easily be the women’s revenge. Unfortunately, in the current production, she is used as a plot devise. Although the character provides humour in slapstick moments, in her mis-pronunciation of English words and some sexual innuendo, there is no depth to her role. As the script clearly contains the possibility of a more dimensional presentation of the role, it would enhance the story to show her with more truth and depth.
It’s a wonderful play, in which Simon Pontin as Randolph particularly shines. The way he holds his body, his mannerisms, his supreme unshakable confidence is so well portrayed. Neil Chinneck in the role of Evelyn Waugh perfectly captures the quiet understated desperation and exasperation he feels at not being able to escape the loquacious Randolph.
Catch it now in live theatre, before it becomes a blockbuster.
Photography by Mitzi de Margary
HAPPY WARRIORS by James Hugh Macdonald
Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village 28 March – 22 April 2018
Reviewer Heather Jeffery is founder and editor of London Pub Theatres magazine www.londonpubtheatre.com (email for press releases: firstname.lastname@example.org)