Churchill is about the only politician in British history who can be referred to only by his first name. However, he’s only referred to as Winston by those on the Right, politically. For a brief year in 1940-41 he held the UK together to prevent the Nazi invasion, and as a result the rest of his disastrous career is forgotten.
Winston On The Run seizes on a moment in 1899 when, escaping from a Boer prisoner of war camp, Churchill is holed out for 14 hours in a mine, waiting either to be recaptured or escorted by British sympathisers to jump a train to freedom. This is the rather improbable framework for a retelling year’s events; a framing device of two election campaigns in Oldham - the first of which he lost, while he won the second - is used for early 1899 and in 1900.
It’s a ripping yarn, but one in which all the disreputable and fascinating aspects of the character are revealed. He is a romantic fantasist, desperate to get into the action; he is an opportunist who at one moment insists that he is an ‘impartial’ journalist and the next that he is really a fighter and ought to have a commission. Bowed down by the reputation of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a senior Tory politician who despised him, he was both desperate to escape his fathre’s shadow and not averse to pulling his rank: ‘I’m the son of a Lord’ is a theme line through the play.
It’s a Boy’s Own Story, because this is what Winston is living in his head, despite the dark thoughts of his depressive side. He alone will win the Boer War. And of course it is all for the greater glory of Winston, as well as the Empire.
Despite some vivid writing and an energetic performance from Freddie Machin, the show suffers from a serious uncertainty of tone. To what extent is it a send-up, and to what extent a serious character study? Machin makes no attempt at an impersonation (for a start, Churchill’s stammer would undermine the pace), which is fine because this is the character’s self-image. But he suggests that somehow the incident made Winston grow up, turning him from the bumbling social gadfly of the first by-election into the smooth politico of the second. There is nothing in the script to show how and why this came about.
There is a fine piece of work struggling to get out of this piece. But Machin needs to decide whether the play is fish or fowl, and rework it accordingly.