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"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Thursday, June 15, 2023

When Winston Went To War With The Wireless @ Donmar Warehouse "Wonderfully fascinating. Riotously funny. And staggeringly timely"...

Last week Stuart and I went to see Jack Thorne’s latest play When Winston Went To War With The Wireless at the Donmar Warehouse in London's glitzy West End.
Short review:
BBC vs The Tories. In 1926. But it could be 2023. The play is wonderfully fascinating. Riotously funny. And staggeringly timely. 
Longer review:
Set during the General Strike of 1926, the action focuses on the fraught relationship between the then newly formed BBC (British Broadcasting Company) and the then Conservative government. It is a rasor sharp study on the importance of the media and the clashing of politics - which will probably feel eerily familiar to a modern ear.
That said, mostly Jack Thorne’s play is a densely-packed historical documentary drama, if occasionally weighed down by too much rather laboured exposition. Kitty Archer confidently doubles up as not only BBC employee Isabel Shields but also historical guide, although this is not maintained throughout the play as a consistent framing device which results in a slightly stalling narrative at times. 
There are featured cameos and excerpts from prominent early BBC programmes and figures, such as Woman’s Hour and Sandy Powell, which are more effective at grounding the cultural context of the piece than the clunky exposition Shields folds into the dialogue.
Despite having his name in the title, Winston Churchill is not the main focus of this production. Rather the story emphasises the character and influence of John Reith (Stephen Campbell Moore), the first general manager of the BBC and a man crippled by warring internal demons  his profound religious beliefs, his latent homosexuality, his duty as a broadcaster and the conflicting pressures of the government. Stephen Campbell Moore gives a squirming and knotty performance as the afflicted Reith, balanced by Adrian Scarboroughs weighty embodiment of Winston Churchill. Scarborough is sensational as the often-parodied former PM and manages to steer satisfyingly away from grotesque impersonation.
John Reiths homosexual relationship, realised with remarkable and tender chemistry by Campbell Moore and Luke Newberry, is somewhat a matter of conjecture and rumour by Reiths biographer and Reith's own daughter. Although queer stories, particularly those under-explored and relegated to the murky shadows of history, are keenly important (particularly in the month of June), it feels like this additional layer of anxiety is perhaps one too many for the visibly burdened and burnt-out Reith. 
Thornes play is so rich and wide reaching and, even at a solid run time of two and a half hours, struggles to pack in all the complexities of the TUCs case, the structure and content of the BBC, the international threat of communism and the Bolshevik revolutions in the newly-formed USSR, the post-war economy crippled by the reintroduction of the gold standard and the outsourcing of coal production to international markets. 
If you don't have time prior to the production to flick through the timeline in the programme, you might struggle with all the history.
No context is needed, however, for Shubham Sarafs powerful monologue on the importance of media integrity and the freedom of the press. Sarafs resolute and impassioned performance as Chief Engineer Peter Eckersley is a steering force in this production and brings an assured and confident energy that tempers the erratic uncertainty that radiates from Campbell Moores anxiety-ridden Reith.
We root for Eckersley. He gets it right. Or should I say 'write' - he is obviously playwright Jack Thorne's manifestation in this piece.
Nevertheless, Katy Rudds direction is fluid and sparky, capturing the frenetic energy and electric pace of the recording studio and the relentless edge of political office. That said, there was something lacking in the energy of this show but the bones are something beautiful.
The stand-out star of the show is Laura Hopkins design, complete with a staggered wall of foley equipment across the rear of the stage. Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham form a formidable coalition with foley consultant Tom Espiner to create a rich world of sound that is unmatched in any other production we have seen (or rather heard).
A fascinating, funny and shockingly relevant historical snapshot  audiences can learn a lot from When Winston Went To War With The Wireless, which balances warm affection and bitter critique of Britain during the inter-war years.

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