Review by Harry Bower
Workers rising up against employers and taking strike action, and a conservative government embroiled in a battle with the BBC; no this isn’t a play set in 2023. Instead, the audience at the Donmar Warehouse are transported back to 1926 and the days of Stanley Baldwin’s administration, which oversaw twelve days of General Strike as printing presses shut down and workers across the country went on strike in support of miners. I will admit to being hugely excited about the prospect of seeing a play with such obvious relevance performed by what was, on-paper, a stellar cast, about one of my favourite historical periods. I was equally excited by the prospect of a play which doesn’t focus on Churchill as a heroic wartime Prime Minister, but looks at his political life in the leadup to that role. When Winston West To War With The Wireless, Jack Thorne’s latest play lives up to expectations in many areas, though struggles with its messaging and frustrating lack of character development.
When the General Strike is announced by the Trades Union Congress, John Reith - the BBC’s first director general - spots an opportunity to rewrite the rules of the broadcasting institution’s scope. Until now, the BBC had been prohibited from broadcasting news during the day for fear it may harm newspaper circulation. With no newspapers at press, though, the BBC took up its new role as a critical public news resource. Naturally this made it a convenient propaganda machine for the government whose aim it was to ‘win’ the strike and get everyone back to work with no concessions. Reith’s battle with the politicians who hold the future of the Corporation (then a company) in their hands, and the truth, is the core plot. To what extent was he was willing to make decisions which compromised the impartiality of news? And how did that desire for truth match up with the parallels of his own untruthful personal life? Flashbacks to scenes of a love affair wrapped up in unambiguous hidden sexuality are a captivating subplot which feel like their own play within a play, yet also somehow distracting when transitioned into the main narrative.
The real star of WWWTWWTW is its sound design. Ben and Max Ringham worked with Foley Consultant Tom Espiner and others to create a Foley soundscape which is utterly brilliant. Combined with an original score by Gary Yershon and a versatile cast carrying out the required actions, it adds an authenticity to the piece which would otherwise be severely lacking. How else do you portray the importance of sound in the context of radio, than by literally spelling it out to the audience in real time, using celery to mimic broken bones, or gravel, or a fishbowl, or a satsuma, to add depth to the world. Lighting design by Howard Hudson is effective if not to the same level of dramatic impact, but certainly integral to carving up the space and allowing the direction (by Katy Rudd) to shine without intrusive set design.
The creatives behind this production have been blessed with a truly wonderful cast, and kudos goes to the Donmar’s casting director Anna Cooper for knocking it out of the park. The headline names are of course Adrian Scarborough and Stephen Campbell Moore, both of whom shine in their respective lead roles as Churchill and Reith, but everywhere else you look there is charisma and chemistry oozing from each performer. Kitty Archer as the perhaps underdeveloped Isabel (secretary and BBC staffer) gets the unenviable task of guiding the audience through the plot as a narrator. She is controlled and measured but allows her character’s passion for the medium of radio to shine through in every sentence, in an infectious sort of way. Shubham Saraf’s performance as Peter Eckersley (Chief Engineer) is full of earnest, playing the unwavering moral guide as unrelenting as is necessary to steer the plot back into its conflict before it gets too wrapped up in the sinister.
It is no coincidence that, given the play’s name, it has some truly brilliant Winston Churchill moments. In fact the scenes in which Scarborough is present as the petulant and bumbling Chancellor, as he was then, are very clearly the pick of the bunch, Churchill’s relentless dialogue driving the piece along at a really satisfying pace. The bits of narrative which don’t involve political heavyweights are unsurprisingly the weakest. I struggled with the clunky narration, some dialogue which felt uninspiring at points and some of the delivery styles of characters who are clearly supposed to be frustrated and struggling to get their words out…but are they playing or is there genuinely a fear about forgotten lines? I didn’t enjoy being a little too close to the edge with that question, more than once.
All that aside, you have to marvel at the ability of theatre to bring us closer to history. I have no shame in admitting I knew very little about the origins of the BBC. Maybe much of its current state can be explained by its beginning, or perhaps the uncanny full-circle relatable themes are pure coincidence; either way, I learned a huge amount while watching the play. WWWTWWTW is a hugely entertaining and interesting play sure to whet the appetite of anyone even remotely interested in the BBC, its origins, or the infamous man himself. On reflection, it’s not really about Winston Churchill at all. It’s primarily a piece about right, wrong, and the decisions made by one man which secured the future of our national broadcasting corporation. While it doesn’t throw any punches, it’s both thought provoking and educational – with a humorous script and compelling performances. Most poignantly it serves as a reminder of the importance of press impartiality, and that theatre can be an immense tool both for entertainment and education. I’ll take a trip to the theatre over a radio programme any day.
When Winston Went To War With The Wireless is not really about Winston going to war with the BBC.
When Winston Went To War With The Wireless plays at Donmar Warehouse until 29 July 2023. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/
Photos by Manuel Harlan