History is brought to life, and the man behind one of the most famous speeches in British history is revealed in this delightful two-hander, Chamberlain: Peace in our Time, from Searchlight Theatre Company at the Rialto, as part of the Brighton Fringe.
A thoroughly entertaining show with two solid performances
David Leeson has a fuller figure than the rather frail-looking Neville Chamberlain, but he captures that period voice, the hesitancy, the pauses, and the distinctive vowels (combined with the occasional fumbling consonant) in a consummate portrayal of the right man who came to office at the wrong time. His measured tones are matched with distinctively paced movements that capture a bygone age of honourable gentlemen politicians.
The failed appeaser was later to be completely overshadowed by his successor, Winston Churchill, and be consigned to an ignominious place in the history books. But in this production we are shown not so much his public face, as the private man, and the devotion he had for his beloved wife Anne. Leeson immerses us in the agonising tension inside Number 10 as the clock ticks and he has to give the announcement to the nation that he believed he had done everything to avoid, and never wanted to make.
In coping with this situation, Chamberlain is assisted by his secretary Jack Colville. Freddy Goymer displays the deferential respect towards his superior that might be expected from someone in his position. But these two have been together for some time. Leeson shows Chamberlain's obvious paternal affection for the young man who now stands by him and whom he invites to share a glass of his favourite single malt. Despite the early hour, a little stiffener is much needed, as is the supportive companionship of his closest aide. Goymer skillfully portrays the delicacy of Colville’s position, and with the understanding and compassion comes the assertiveness often required of men in such positions to confront even the Prime Minister with difficult advice and harsh reality.
Meanwhile, the BBC does its best to lift the nation’s spirits with music and entertainment that will be forever associated with WWII. In addition to the legendary Arthur Askey with his rustic humour, there is the celebrated Lancashire tenor Tom Burke. Goymer also takes on this latter role and we are treated to his fine voice working its way through a selection of the period’s repertoire that was to sustain the nation in its darkest hour. I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire has never seemed more apposite, while The White Cliffs of Dover inevitably appear.
The combination of drama and music makes for a thoroughly entertaining show with two solid performances. Stephen Robinson’s sound is crucial to its success and the design by Michael Taylor adds to its authenticity. If Chamberlain waving the paper with the pledges he and Hitler had made to each other is the most memorable of his gestures, there is one at the very end of this play which is as moving as a thousand words. Watch Leeson’s left hand; it's a stroke of genius that speaks volumes.