To Kill a Mockingbird, Gielgud Theatre

This review was written the morning after President Biden took to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, to warn the half of the American electorate flirting with fascism and the age-old allure of white supremacist ideology, that this was anathema to the nebulous concept of American democracy; a cherished ideal to be sure, but one that many, particularly African Americans, may argue, with some force, has never been fully-realised.

As Biden tried valiantly to make a distinction between the so-called MAGA extremists (Make America Genocidal Again) and ordinary Republicans, one is reminded of the tension – the liberal guilt and acute awareness of caste privilege that runs through Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

The 1960 novel, famously adapted to film in 1962 with a barnstorming central performance from Gregory Peck, is arguably the quintessential snapshot of the American psyche; a succinct and earnest critique of the politics of race that make the United States, particularly the South, such a hotbed of inequity and injustice.

“The white man built America!” cries the pinned down Mayella Ewell – the pasty white teen whose abusive father has shamed her healthy sexual attraction to black man Tom Robinson, and coerced her into making a (spoiler) false accusation of rape; a capital crime.

Mayella’s fragile identity is built on a myth of white exceptionalism; the industriousness of a master race that conveniently erases the slave labour that made such expansion possible. Mayella is brain dead, a victim of social and patriarchal forces beyond her control; a stooge for white elites. If she lived in 2022 she’d be a MAGA republican ready to cast her unrepressed vote for a resurgent Donald Trump. That’s the awful thing about To Kill a Mockingbird – the story refuses to lie down. It’s a reminiscence and period piece that intrudes on the present like a middle-aged diagnosis of lung cancer following a teen flirtation with cigars.

Biden’s speech avoided Hilary Clinton’s rhetorical error of badging the opponents of progressivism, deplorables. That’s hotwired into Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the novel – the impossibly decent Atticus Finch, mighty fine in the form of Richard Coyle, warning against summary judgement of one’s foes.

One has to consider the antecedents of their grievances, show each man and mental respect. Finch embodies old fashioned notions of moderation, bipartisanship, civility. In short: tolerance. He’s so damned virtuous (though not, stresses Sorkin, immune to the odd spasm of hardwired white superiority), we desperately want to believe his mantra of mutual understanding. Black house servant Calpurnia speaks for a modern audience bred to see centrist politics as both moral capitulation and naivety, when she questions whether there’s anyone – like child rapist and Klansman Bob Ewell, who’s beyond the pale; for whom compromise is appeasement. Yet Finch, for the most part, stands firm. One has to maintain one’s values, even in the face of appalling provocation to set them aside.

It’s not clear if either Harper Lee or Aaron Sorkin, who finesses the dialogue in this theatrical version with his trademark wit and poetry, actually believes in the durability or practicality of the Finch doctrine. Both novel and play have that convenient get out clause – the concept of natural justice; the judicial blind eye that compensates for systemic failure.

The coda’s always been the weakest part of Lee’s story – moral closure in a society that allows none. Appropriately, given the deep southern setting, the proceedings close with a sermon and note of Christian optimism. But for me the story’s over the moment a prison execution closes off the last legal route to justice. The sin is committed, the innocent dies, the killers neck moonshine and return to their unjust lives. What better way to incite liberal theatregoers to check their complacency and rally their troops than by leaving it there?

A Doll’s House Part II, Donmar Warehouse

Some 140 years after the door slam that George Bernard Shaw said could be heard around the world, comes a sequel – first produced on Broadway in 2017, to Henrik Ibsen’s proto-feminist standard. Nora, wife of Torwald, has left the building and she’s taken many 19th century assumptions about the role of Western women with her. Nora’s closed the door on the idea that a woman shouldn’t be free to earn her own money, or express her own views, or not be able to live autonomously – not just as an adjunct to and as the legal property of her husband. Most grievously, she left behind a baby, and with it some cherished notions about a woman’s function.

Ibsen’s door slam was supposed to be final so what, you ask, does Lucas Hnath think he’s doing, having Nora return to face the music some 15 years later? Is there any value in a summative conversation, a literature seminar, transposed to the now quiet and implicitly settled Helmer household? Does a Doll’s House really need an epilogue?

On this evidence it’s a sound choice. A door slam may be decisive but it’s not final for the people left behind. The force and weight of Ibsen’s play came from the decision to abandon institutional forces – the husband, the baby, the estate; but Hnath, with sound reason and compassion, reminds us that human beings prop up society’s structures and they too have a voice and perspective worth hearing. Part II, then, is the mitigation, a mediation on consequences, a call for balance: a manifesto that makes it simultaneously modern and, in the age of social media and instant judgement, old fashioned.

Essentially a set of two handers between Nora and her the household members she left behind – husband Torvald, aged nanny Anne-Marie, and youngest child Emmy (now a young woman); a dynamic that underscores the debating posture adopted by Hnath; the play sets out the case for Nora’s moral prosecution with great concision.

An absent mother requires someone else to bear the responsibility, namely a notably debilitated Anne-Marie, a lifelong relationship is enriching and potentially vitalising – not as Ibsen supposed mere institutionalised servitude, and personal freedom, though liberating, does not inevitably engender happiness. Nora hopes for a day when everyone is free from shackles like family life and its burdens, but her family are there to remind her that some constraints are character forming and work to the collective good.

The Donmar’s production suggests this is a cathartic philosophical rumination. In transitions between scenes – in the play’s downtime, with the ticking of the clock insistent and loud – the simple set is bathed in red light, heightening its purgatorial aspect. The characters needed to reconcile, to talk it out – the staging tells us – having been in limbo for so long.

No strict resolution is possible, Hnatch suggests, because ultimately the idea of personal freedom and collective responsibility (albeit bound up by a system that oppresses one gender) is irreconcilable. Nora and Torvald are irreconcilable. The former has a touch of the activist in Noma Dumezweni’s characterisation. The latter, a solemn Brían F. O’Byrne, is not just a phallic bludgeon here, rather a gentle and somewhat lost human being, and the play is richer for noting the tragedy of a man who’s trapped by guilt and hallowed out by loneliness. He needs someone to look after him, one feels, but Nora can never be that person. Human wants and political awakenings make poor bed fellows.

There’s some Ibsen-like background complications – legal loopholes and societal barriers to overcome – but these are ultimately window dressing for the doll’s house. Part II successfully develops Ibsen’s themes – a conversation about liberty and responsibility set during a time when both concepts carried considerable societal weight. Men and women alike, of traditional bent and none, will surely find something to chew over.

Straight Line Crazy, Bridge Theatre

“A visit from the Old Testament!” proclaims a member of the Vanderbilt dynasty, as future head of the New York City planning commission, Robert Moses, invites himself round to talk with one of the city’s great landowners about the common man’s newly discovered taste for leisure and the opportunities therein. Vanderbilt’s right; Robert Moses is a biblical character. A man with a god complex, yes, but also a desire to create the world in his own image and impose his values. When nominative determinism is this on the nose, a play outlines itself.

The biblical Moses turned his back on the Egyptians and lead the enslaved population to freedom. The 20th century Moses admires antiquity’s architectural perfectionism and ignores the cost in human lives. The mind wanders to other egos from recent history who were big on city planning.

David Hare’s dramaturgical design incorporates biographical nooks and mile upon mile of social commentary. Moses, we learn, is a man whose narcissism works in tandem with a sliding scale of contempt for those he regards as barriers to progress. The more poor, female and non-white you are, the greater Moses’ tendency, fashionable amongst the intelligentsia of the early 20th century, to bulldoze your neighbourhood in the name of paternalism – an authoritarian and distinctly undemocratic tendency that’s useful for hiding all manner of destructive instincts. “Vandal”, “doctrinaire”, these words get bandied about. Uglier words spring to mind.

Straight Line Crazy’s a grand character study but it might have been a better play, though perhaps a weaker piece of biography, had Hare not delineated Moses’ self-interest when an up and comer. Though he later explores the irony of a neophile whose ideas have been frozen in aspic, Ralph Fiennes’ megalomaniac might have been a more tragic figure still had he actually once believed in a benign form of utilitarianism.

Swaggering and wryly cynical, Fiennes suitably puffed up and incredulous – his hands on his hips like a weary Leonard Rossiter, the younger Moses sets out his implicitly contemptuous idea that the green spaces he’ll create, betwixt the city’s new arteries, are a sop to the virtue symbolised by nature – manna for opinion formers.

His later declaration, that roads are simply the means by which urban renewal is facilitated, is either self-deception or outright dishonesty. As the play reaches its crescendo, with conserving forces finally rallying, though too late to prevent the commodification of traditional living, there’s no doubt. Moses’ plans for further “improvements” are defeated but the unforeseen consequence is lifestyle as a fetish – saved communities available only to the most affluent.

It’s sobering to think that just as Jane Jacobs was waking up New Yorkers and the American architectural orthodoxy to the deprivations caused by their abstract thinking (The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961), foaming UK urban technocrats, eyes like wall cavities, were preparing to replicate it as a panacea for the country’s post-war housing problems.

What lay behind the plans – corruption, fear and hatred of the working poor and minority communities, a Mr Toad-like fascination with cars, which just happened to exclude the worst off – was the same as before and it had exactly the same sociological impact; the displacement of generational communities, homes replaced by living cells in isolated blocks – anomie, alienation, and the low paid turfed into poor housing stock or the sense-deadening sprawl.

It would be comforting to exit Hare’s play and call it history. But some patrons will return to so-called shared owned homes in lifeless, recently built appends to once vibrant communities throughout London and lament an evening in the company of the man who made it all possible. You may want to contact your Housing Association by the way, that damp wall is starting to smell.  

The Shark is Broken, Ambassadors Theatre

Theatrical spinoffs from popular movies are usually ill-conceived and redundant; a double whammy from which you’re less likely to come back than Chrissie Watkins after a swim off the beaches of Amity Island. But Ian Shaw, son of late actor and occasional hellraiser, Robert Shaw, has found a refreshing and exhilarating way to make a companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws that isn’t dead meat for the sharks, or whatever metaphor you care to use. I promise there won’t be any more of these.

If you know Spielberg’s film you’ll agree that for all its Hitchcockian brilliance, the crux of it – its heart as Ian Shaw tells us, ventriloquising his Dad, is three men trapped on a boat, killing time, exchanging stories and facing their fears – their Melville-like odyssey culminating in Quint’s Indianapolis speech; one of cinema’s most memorable (and chilling) monologues.

In a theatrical masterstroke, not to mention a shrewd piece of psychological storytelling, playwrights Shaw and Joseph Nixon use this backdrop and the same dynamic – the three men, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, mirrors of their movie personas (a drunken working class curmudgeon, preppy insecure spoilt brat, and grounded everyman respectively) to explore their off screen relationship on the much delayed oceanic leg of the shoot. Robert Shaw’s diaries form the backbone of the script but there’s import from the present, namely Ian Shaw’s reflections on his father’s character and a sense of regret and loss that is implicitly cyclical – not least when Shaw senior laments his truncated relationship with the playwright’s grandfather.

These notes in the margin – the equivalent of annotating his father’s autobiography, might have been overdone, but Ian Shaw is content to use understatement when putting words in his emphatic father’s mouth. Shaw senior enjoys the fantasy that had he and his father had more time the son could have helped his Dad overcome his demons. He wonders aloud, would his gestatory sponsor be proud of him if he could see him now? Given the fidelity of Ian Shaw’s performance, Shaw senior surely would be.

If the play has a little too much conspicuous, and therefore clunky meta-commentary on the Jaws series and the future blockbusters their movie would kickstart in earnest, the reflections of the recreated cast on the artistic merit of the film they’re making have the feel of authentic exchanges. Robert Shaw, ever the artist, dismisses it as a “money making machine” – typical of the decade’s high concept empty spectacles. Liam Murray Scott’s Dreyfuss wonders if it will make his name. Demetri Gortisas’ Scheider laments his typecasting. We’re left to reflect that by today’s standards that crowd pleaser – which like the play it’s inspired has actors not stars, looks thoughtful and character driven. Steven Spielberg just rolled over a stone. He didn’t know it was plugging a hole in the universe.

The Shark is Broken but the play isn’t thanks to the plausible merging of actors’ identities with their now iconic characters. It’s a poignant and often very funny piece about art, commerce and men at a pivotal moment in their careers. But fundamentally it’s a son’s eulogy for his dead father. Few get to play their Dads on stage. Fewer still embody them so vividly. For fans of Jaws that’s reason enough to see this production. Those who do will be treated to a sometimes uncanny but always insightful and philosophical rumination on life; a fantasy based on a memory from a fantasy. Not to be missed.

Best of Enemies, Young Vic

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Gore Vidal’s best enemies I conjure up the pugilistic, possibly part-psychotic Norman Mailer and protégé turned critic, Christopher Hitchens. James Graham, however, is interested in Vidal’s on-screen spats with William F. Buckley Jr, the conservative writer and commentator given his own, then innovative debate show, Firing Line. By the time of the 1968 presidential race, Buckley was an established interrogator whose on screen persona evinced high-minded civility. The struggling ABC network recruited him to front their coverage of the main parties’ national conventions, and in a hail Mary attempt to add entertainment to its news coverage and bolster its ratings, partnered him with his ideological nemesis and intellectual match, Vidal.

Watching network executives roam the mocked up director’s booth, vigorously stroking engorged members as the two locked horns, you can see what later troubled Paddy Chayefsky – more heat than light; TV the channel for an unchecked and incendiary stream of consciousness.

The conceit of Graham’s play is that the Vidal/Buckley rivalry was the frontline in 1968 America’s culture war. This is a story with a supporting cast that includes old Buckley debating rival, James Baldwin, and provocateur Andy Warhol. This is the period of counter cultural uprising, of the breaking and rolling back of waves lamented by Hunter S. Thompson – of student protest and political assassination.

America, an uneasy and volatile nation, divided by race and a conflicted sense of self, had, in Vidal and Buckley, poster boys for the opposing factions. As Buckley’s wife helpfully summarises, for ordinary Americans watching these men debate the state of the nation was about which version of the country they wanted to live in – liberal, that is to say something like what we now call progressive, or a country defined by a free market and traditional values. Lucky for us this is such a time capsule and we’ve moved beyond these crude divisions.

All joking aside, and with the contemporary parallels in post-Brexit Britain as sharp as a Vidal bon mot, this is a trip back to an exciting and dangerous time in America, when the fault line Vidal prophesied, was starting to show – old certainties falling through the fissure. Identities were forming as a precursor to what we now call identity politics.

Charles Edwards has Vidal’s ticks and superciliousness down pat; he embodies the aloofness and disdain of the man, while recognising him to be a contrarian of sorts whose arguments pointed to a fundamental contempt for society’s reassuring fictions. The fun casting of David Harewood as Buckley, a theatrical fuck you to the man he plays, works both as a post-modern flag; a sign that Graham et al are very much in Gore’s camp; and a great turn. Harewood conveys Buckley’s arrogance and exasperation at the threat Vidal represents to the essentialist ideals he holds dear, as well his self-doubt as Vidal exposes his latent bigotry and fear of unchecked liberalism.

Graham’s fantasy is that both men ultimately come to the realisation they’re flip sides of the same coin – egos tethered to causes that suit their disposition. What they’re against is as important as what they’re for – a dynamic that shapes today’s non-collegiate, ghettoed politics. The only way forward, the play seems to suggest, is mutual understanding and compromise. A political fairy tale then, but one worth reading to your kids for a couple of hours.  

Back to the Future: The Musical, Adelphi Theatre

I’m a huge fan of Back to the Future. I saw it for the first time in January 1986 and maybe a hundred times since. I’m not a huge fan of musical theatre and less of the trend, both satirised and anticipated by The Simpsons’ Planet of the Apes: The Musical skit, in which Troy McClure took on Charlton Heston’s role and sang the immortal lyric, “chimpan-a to chimpanzee”, of retrofitting movies for the stage. I confess, time travel fans, when I heard Marty and the Doc were heading for the West End I wondered if the sub-genre had jumped the shark. And this at a time when there’s a play about Jaws just a few streets away.

Bob Gale, co-writer of the movie, and author of the book for this stage reprise, famously has a contractual veto that forbids Hollywood from unilaterally remaking the 1985 film. This gives rise to the obvious gag – nobody ruins Back to the Future but him. But has it been ruined, or can an all-singing, all-dancing version with the basic story and characters in tact recapture the film’s magical blend of nostalgia (doubly so since the ‘80s have passed into history) and family restoration fantasy?

The short answer is not without some tweaks. Back to the Future, whatever you think of it, is a cinematic experience. The stage has limitations the filmmakers neither thought or cared about. Forward and back projection are required to recreate the movie’s kinetic sequences of automotive action and cinematic cuts – not least in the distinctly untheatrical climax. Sequences have been conflated or excised to minimise the number of scene changes. And the DeLorean is now voice activated for no reason other than it conveniently grounds the car when required and removes the need for close ups of the interior in the now film-only scene in which the Doc demos the time circuits.

But we know these are just stage craft conversions. What we’re really interested in, ahead of curtain up, is how Gale has dealt with the absurdist and, for a mainstream Hollywood family film of any era, subversive elements that today, in a theatrical culture where contextual misgendering gets a trigger warning in the programme, rattles a production’s contemporary sensibilities.

Going in I hoped Gale would throw caution to the wind and make fun of elements like the Libyan terrorists who bring a rocket launcher to a California shopping mall carpark, and Marty inventing Rock’n’roll by giving Chuck Berry a preview of his own ideas, with some irreverent songs and a little knowing humour. But deemed problematic, these memorable moments from the film have been removed – the former replaced with a less threatening and far less eye-catching workaround. What may interest those who note these omissions, not to mention the lack of swearing, is what has remained untouched.

Back to the Future is a story about a father and son – both literal (Marty and George) and figurative (Marty and Doc) – Brown the stand-in for the father figure effectively absent from Marty’s original timeline. This is touching and relatable in the original film, though its treatment throws up one of the most extraordinary Hollywood conceits of all time – the threat of incest when Lorraine, Marty’s teen mother, falls in love with him instead of his Dad-to-be.

Why? Because, other than being in the wrong time and place, Marty, to Lorraine, represents a kind of masculine archetype – a man who’s strong and protects the woman he loves – that the gangly, shy, anxiety ridden George does not. George, anticipating the geek culture that’s now mainstream – the nerd who loves science fiction and, in a forerunner to the internet, spies on women undressing using binoculars instead of a browser, can only restore Marty’s future by becoming the kind of man who’s prepared to knock another out. This is old-fashioned, unreconstructed stuff. Perhaps an accurate missive from the Darwinian world of sexual competition, but highly regressive in our new era of abstract thinking around genderfluidity and sexual attraction.

All of which makes it into the Back to the Future musical unmolested and unquestioned. It still works. There’s still that exhilaration when George lays out Biff with one punch, and you can’t take any of that out without ripping up the original story, but perhaps Gale should have considered a few gags about the ruinous impact of gender archetypes, rather than the easy one about Covid.

Ultimately, though you will need a credit card to ride this train when the best seats in the house are £80, Back to the Future: The Musical has enough of the film’s DNA to engender the good feeling and mischievous fun of old. It’s edgeless compared to its movie counterpart – after all, camp destroys drama and the musical format flattens out characterisation, but the songs are jaunty enough and the cast (both understudies for the leads present at my performance but looking good from the back) give it their all. In short, like the time machine, it works. But let’s not do anything like this again, okay?

Bat Out Of Hell, New Theatre Oxford

Glenn Adamson as Strat in BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit – Chris Davis Studio

Fans will no doubt revel in recognition of their favourite songs during this rock opera based upon the epic power ballads of Meatloaf and Jim Steinman, but there is plenty to entertain those of us less au fait with the oeuvre (I recognised maybe three, much to the disgust of my Meatloaf-loving plus one).

With huge song after huge song, it would have been easy for the energy to wane, but the cast did a tremendous job handling the unrelenting epic-ness. How on earth they keep up that energy and intensity night after night, especially after such a long period without being able to flex their musical theatre muscles, is miraculous. There were stand-out vocal performances from Glenn Adamson at Strat, Sharon Sexton as Sloane and Rob Fowler as Falco. Kellie Gnauck, playing the lead role of Raven for the very first time, captured the essence of a tempestuous teenager perfectly.

As anyone familiar with the lyrics of the music featured will no doubt know already, the plot is at best bizarre and in some parts unfathomable. Peter Pan meets…sewage grunge? At one point, an engine was thrown into the orchestra pit which, though it set up a reasonable gag, came otherwise out of the blue. Choreography was boyband at best, and while the set design was as highly-powered as the ballads, the inclusion of a projected handheld camera and semi-visible room made it quite difficult to watch at times.

While they can’t promise this at every opening night, the Oxford team arranged for the local Harley Davidson group to rev their way past in convoy while we queued to prove our covid status. I’m not sure my ear drums will ever be the same, but it was worth it. Special mention too to the Deliveroo driver, who when he found himself caught in the melee, joined right in from his scooter. A memorable night for all concerned.

I’m not convinced it was the best night out I could have with my clothes on (as the publicity suggests), but it was hard not to get caught up in the sheer joy that spread throughout the near sell-out crowds. The standing ovation it received was, though not necessarily warranted by the show in itself, testament to how grateful we are to have theatre and live music back in our lives. It also made it much easier to join in with a joyous final boogie.

You can see Bat Out Of Hell in Oxford until Saturday 16th October. Catch it on tour all over the UK well into 2022.

Rob Fowler as Falco and Sharon Sexton as Sloane in BAT OUT OF HELL THE MUSICAL. Photo Credit – Chris Davis Studio

Nigel Slater’s Toast, Lawrence Batley Theatre Online

Perhaps, like Nigel Slater, your formative years were enhanced by a doting Mum with a gastronomic bent. Not me, dear readers. My mother was and is the laziest non-cook who ever lived. A typical meal might be a dry, pallid chop with a side of foul tin-sourced butter beans or, on special occasions, a roast dinner in which the peas were put on first.

In Slater’s online childhood memoir, illustrated like the pages of a high-end cook book, with watercolour renderings of tableaus, we learn his Dad once attempted a Spaghetti Bolognese. Apparently it smelt like sick. My Mum’s version looked like Italian cuisine recreated by an alien based on the oral histories of the last humans. If Nigel had grown up in my house, he wouldn’t be a cook, he’d be like me – addicted to junk food and the psychological crutch that helps wash it down: Diet Coke.

Toast is a sentimental and unashamedly middle class memoir, that’s narrated with a knowing naivety. Nigel, played by Giles Cooper, straddles Just William and J.K Rowling. He starts with an impossibly twee existence – Mum extolling the joys of jam tarts and crafted sweets at Christmas from the old village shop, then becomes, following her death (in which one could read he’s complicit, given the ambiguous note sounded), Harry Potter; relocated, and stuck with an emotionally negligent guardian and his self-involved and insecure new girlfriend.

Along the way he interacts with rejected Rowling characters like Worrell Blubb, pursues his love of cooking, is resoundingly mocked for doing so, as it’s considered a female preoccupation, before finally realising he’s gay. Nigel then decamps to London, Dick Whittington style, and you know the rest, if, like me, you’ve received one of his books as an unwanted Christmas gift from a relative who didn’t have a clue what to get me, because they didn’t ask, so grabbed the first thing they saw on a visit to WH Smiths.

If you’re in the right mood, Toast is, in turns a, er, warm and crusty online play that’s chock-full with relatable vignettes and cloying pathos. Like a piece of toast, it’s pretty thin when you think about it, but it’s the stuff that’s lashed on top that makes the difference. In this case, a boy’s noble attempt to stay ahead of tragedy and disappointment by focusing on the thing he loves, namely pleasuring the taste buds.

Anyone who’s had a genuinely traumatic childhood, marred by dysfunctionality and domestic disturbance, may struggle to accept the implicit level of anomie and oppression suggested by the coy youth’s recollections, but Toast – buoyed by mems of Nigel’s Mam (not to be confused with Nigel’s Mum’s mams), shows us how a foodie’s consciousness gets cooked, with simple ingredients and easy to follow steps.

Toast is broadcasting online until July 31st 2020. Go to www.thelbt.org for more information and to buy tickets.

Peace in Our Time, Union Theatre

Sometime around the early 1960s, it became safe, even fun, to speculate about Britain (and indeed the world) under the cosh of Nazi occupation. This popular counterfactual featured on film in It Happened Here, and in novel form – the likes of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and later, Robert Harris’s (60s set) Fatherland. But it was the erudite wit and father of wartime escapism, Noel Coward, who was first out of the blocks with Peace in Our Time, a play that debuted and closed in 1947, landing for both audiences and critics like a V2 missile at a christening.

Why did contemporary audiences hate it? After all, it’s a rousing story of festering British patriotism and resistance, doing its best to break out while Hitler’s stooges keep a watchful eye on a Petticoat Lane pub full of conquered locals. This is not victory denied but victory deferred; a play that suggests that invasion would have only have galvanised our allies to mount a D-day-like offensive to liberate us when military advances on the continent permitted, aided by shrewd internal defiance from Brits with an unconquerable spirit.

Perhaps the problem was that Coward’s speculative fiction, with the moral quagmire of occupied France as its spur, inevitably had to deal with the certainty of collaboration in some quarters, resignation in others.

Chorley Bannister, pub regular and debonair editor of Forethought, a new periodical, represents a kind of intelligentsia, very much prevalent before the war, suspicious of democracy and the corollary, a mass readership. He has a morally relativist, some might say, sociopathic indifference to the new arrangements. We infer he likes the idea of a society in which the lower orders are kept down by the bastions of high civilisation. Coward, bravely, writes the character as a peer, complete with Coward-like rhetorical flourishes. Dominic McChesney, who occupies the persona completely in Phil Wilmott’s revival, even resembles Coward!

But a 1947 audience must have found the idea of opinion formers and friends to the governing classes as sympathisers, abhorrent. Though it should be noted, this was a perfectly reasonable punt on Coward’s part. How odd that journalists should have reacted to it like an anaphylactic shock.

Likewise, Bobby Paxton, listed in the dramatis personae as “an ambitious young man”, one of many wartime euphemisms, is a spiv who embraces the Germans with indecent haste, seeing the opportunity for social advancement. No amount of faith in what Nazi officer Richter mistakenly identifies as the middle class (the couple who run the pub and half their customers are working class); a confidence that Coward signals throughout the play, in little speeches that vouchsafe the imagined irreverence and moral certainty of the British character; can wash away the foul taste of that opportunism. One can imagine it was that possibility, not the deprivations of occupation, or the notion of being oppressed – as none of the characters are resigned to it, that sealed the original production’s fate.

In 2020, Peace in Our Time has a lot to tell us about post-war British identity. As the recent Brexit debacle played out over a period nearly as long as the war, it was the group that Orwell would describe as the proles – the hope, in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, published a year after Coward’s play was performed, that was blamed for wrecking the nation’s prosperity and arresting its progress as an outward looking country.

In Coward’s play, there’s a sentimental affection for the just managing – embodied in the honourable Shattock family that run the boozer; the moral and spiritual heart of a gutted community. They represent, in the absence of a Blitz to induce Blitz spirit, a form of British resilience, underpinned by confidence in the country’s innate and superior virtues. This is an easy idea to mock, but there’s no questioning the sincerity with which Coward affirmed it, and no denying the contrast with modern cosmopolitan conceptions of the white working class, that see the Shattock’s grandchildren as degenerate and senseless.

Sasha Regan’s production is a fascinating historical curio, then, but also a fine piece of speculative drama, imbued with Coward’s gift for eloquence and waspishness. The inventive staging allows for the plain of action to shift with characters’ perspectives, which is a gift when presented with such a large ensemble, and the delivery is attuned to the verbosity on the page. You go to a Coward play to hear Coward, and he’s in fine voice at the Union Theatre. The morally ambiguous ending is guaranteed to occupy your thoughts long after the stage lights dim.