May 1940 saw Winston Churchill assume the mantle of Prime Minister, and one of the first situations he had to tackle was the possibility of making a deal with Hitler via mediation by Mussolini. Discussions about this took place in the War cabinet during the period 26 to 28th May 1940 - the 'three days' referred to in the title.
Ben Brown's meticulously researched and detailed play takes place, for the most part, in 10 Downing Street where the previous Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, still resides, presumably because he has not had chance to pack his bags yet. The action focuses on several meetings of the War Cabinet which, at the time of the crisis, was composed of just 5 members including the recently replaced Chamberlain. Churchill's position is basically that to make a deal with the Germans would inevitably result in total capitulation, but is opposed by Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who wants to sue for peace, even though he realises it is only a glimmer of hope.
James Alper kicks things off as Jock Colville, the Assistant Private Secretary who served three Prime Ministers. Mr Alper is the youthful epitome of the civil servant, complete with brilliantined hair and immaculate parting, who wants to follow in the footsteps of his brothers by 'joining-up', but is prevented from doing so by Churchill. Mr Alper provides some of the background to events and the situation, which may be irritating for some, but essential for many. Warren Clarke as Churchill certainly captures the essence of the 'bulldog' war-time leader and highlights both his oratorical skills as well as his political gifts for arm-twisting his colleagues – Chamberlain and Halifax – to agree with his view of fighting on to the bitter end. Robert Demeger has the large, haunted eyes of the former Prime Minister who tried unsuccessfully to reach an agreement with Hitler to avoid war. Though dogged by his failure, Chamberlain ultimately realises that further appeasement is bound to fail and supports Churchill's view. And Jeremy Clyde is Foreign Secretary Halifax, a haughty and oily member of the upper-class whose lack of insight could easily have landed the country with a very different future and history.
'Three Days in May' offers one of those rare moments in theatre – the chance to experience monumental events which took place behind closed doors and which for many years no-one outside of those directly involved actually knew anything about. In that regard it is an important work, but the intensity of the drama which unfolded during those three days does not make an easy transition to the stage. Though we are held commendably by the performances and the enormity of the matters being discussed, it never really approaches the kind of nail-biting drama that has you on the edge of your seat. The tolling bell – presumably Big Ben – seems ominous enough for the seriousness of the times, but the atmosphere does not match the overwhelming intensity of the situation and the dialogue seems rather more academic than theatrically electrifying. Even so, it is still very watchable.
"The play proves both riveting and moving"
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Smacks a little too much of a history lesson"
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"This is serious work, historically gripping, despatched with cigar-sucking aplomb"
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
External links to full reviews from popular press