Three Days In May (review)

THE public never really know what government talks about behind closed doors and the secrecy becomes absolute when they’re discussing affairs that could change the course of history.

Author Ben Brown has taken real live events from May 1940 and woven the facts into a compelling new play. Three Days In May, running at Milton Keynes Theatre this week, is an engrossing and thrilling drama that takes its audiences into the corridors of power to witness one great man’s fight to save Britain from the clutches of Adolf Hitler.

Winston Churchill, played with relish and a little artistic licence by TV’s Warren Clarke, is in the throes of a dilemma. Not only does he face an enemy abroad that is threatening to destroy Britain and its armed forces, but he is also constantly being challenged from within.

Brown’s premise, backed by a good deal of fact, is that the War Cabinet was asked to seriously consider the unthinkable - surrendering Britain to Germany.

Just nine months into World War Two Czechoslovakia and Poland had fallen, Belguim was on the brink and both France and Italy were capitulating. Half a million British troops were trapped in France by an advancing Nazi army and America refused to come to Britain’s aid.

The country was on the brink of ruin and the foreign secretary Lord Halifax, known as The Holy Fox, began pushing for settlement with Hitler (with terms) backed, initially by the disgraced former PM Neville Chamberlain. Only the War Cabinet’s Labour members, Arthur Greenwood and Clement Attlee, called for unity in continuing the fight.

With Churchill in the middle would he throw in the towel or come out fighting ?

Three Days In May isn’t just for history buffs or those who lived through the war years. It’s a tightly written story that holds the attention from the opening minutes thanks due to some sharply observed performances from the small cast who are on stage pretty much throughout.

Clarke, as Churchill, just about holds onto the voice of Winnie although he looks a little too slim for the portly leader. But he plays the politician with real conviction and gains the audience’s empathy as his character struggles to come to the right decision for the good of his people.

It’s the first time in a decade that the actor, known for TV appearances in Corrie, Dalziel and Pascoe, Just William and earlier movie roles like Clockwork Orange (filmed in Aylesbury), has appeared in theatre and it is hoped that he considers more work treading the boards as he has a presence and weight on stage that is often lacking in television actors.

I was curious as to why his character was the only member of the War Cabinet to appear on stage with his trusty gas mask, or why he had it at all considering the cabinet met, during the war, deep in the bowels of the Admiralty, far away from any dangers of gas. Was Clarke’s Churchill being ultra cautious and the remainder cavalier ? My history’s too sketchy to know.

Jeremy Clyde (last seen at MKT in Joanna Trollope’s Aga saga, Marrying The Mistress in 2005) gives a particularly effective performance as the powerful and influential right-wing Tory grandee Halifax, a man who met with Hitler in a bid to broker piece and who played power games with the PM. His voice, at times placating and sympathetic, changes in a second to instil fear and dominance into the weak Chamberlain who finds himself torn between Churchill and the FS.

Those three days of meetings probably changed the course of the war and saved Britain from a Nazi tyranny. A fascinating and tense thriller.

Three Days In May runs until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 0844 871 7652 or go online