2 June 2023
WHEN WINSTON WENT TO WAR WITH THE WIRELESS (Donmar Theatre) Review

Jack Thorne already has an excellent historical play (“The Motive and the Cue“) presently running at the National Theatre. This attempt at two for two is not quite as successful in my view.

The landscape of the play is the 1926 General Strike that pitted BBC (back when the “C” stood for “company”) against the British Gazette, the two being the only news sources around. The former was run by John Reith and was his “everything”; the  latter was run by Winston Churchill, but the vibe we get, rightly or wrongly, is that it was a product of necessity for him rather than a passion.

The play’s title suggests that it might be about Churchill and his battle with Reith (and possibly the world). That, however, is not the case. The play is largely about Reith and his demons; turns out he had quite a few. Churchill is very much incidental to the plot, which is a shame because Adrian Scarborough is rather excellent in looking and sounding the part. What is more disappointing is that, even with Reith’s character taking centre-stage, it doesn’t feel like we are getting to know the man. Don’t get me wrong, we get to see him daydreaming about the love of his live and letting his marriage fall apart over it, but we don’t really see him greave or transform or grow in any way really. Steven Campbell Moore is very entertaining to watch, but his Reith is somewhat topical at best.

The ensemble cast is thoroughly excellent with a special shout-out to Kevin McMonagle for his ditty among other things. It is most certainly worth it to stay in your seat during the intermission.  The high point of the show for me was Haydn Gwynne doubling as Stanley Baldwin (the PM) and a radio singer.  Her Baldwin is quick and to the point, but is hardly entertaining.  Her singer, however, brief though the role is, lifts the show not simply because it’s a funny role, but because it gives us a window into the vibe of what radio was like at the time.  Even so, the most interesting part of the show was the 2 minute bit about how sound effects are achieved on the radio…

Between the misleading title, underused Scarborough, uninteresting Moore, and ornamental Gwynne, I was disappointed because this play could’ve been so much more than it ended up being.  Historical plays seem to be very popular these days, but there’s a big gap between telling a story (or, better yet, painting a picture) and laying out some dry factoids.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £2.

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