Review: Three Days In May

A crisis on the continent which will affect Britain's future for years to come: 2011 is no 1940, but there are parallels nonetheless.

By Alex Stevenson

An atmosphere of foreboding menace. The feeling that the entire collapse of civilisation is at hand. If there's one thing Three Days In May doesn't offer to theatregoers this autumn, it's a sense of escapism from the impending doom currently overshadowing Europe.

Playwright Ben Brown takes theatregoers down the road from the Trafalgar Studios theatre on Whitehall to the interior of No 10 in his play. But it's not the collapse of the single currency which is preoccupying Britain's embattled Cabinet. It's the invasion of the Nazis.

The central tension of Three Days In May is based on the suggestion that the resolve of Britain's war leaders to fight Hitler "wobbled" during 1940. Warren Clarke as a passable Winston Churchill and Jeremy Clyde playing the Sir Humphrey-esque foreign secretary Lord Halifax do rhetorical battle over whether to continue the struggle or seek a negotiated peace. When it becomes clear they will not reach agreement, and with the Labour members of the War Cabinet demoted to walk-on parts, the key decision rests on the views of ex-PM – and arch-appeaser – Neville Chamberlain.

The evacuation of Dunkirk took place at the same time as the agonising inside No 10, although the impending disaster does not overshadow proceedings as much as it could. Instead the focus is on Churchill and Halifax's efforts to win over Chamberlain, played by Robert Demerger, who emerges as the unexpected crux on which Britain's future will be decided. The bitter smell of cigarette and cigar smoke wafts into the audience as three figures from history debate the ultimate leadership decision.

Britain's supreme drama of the 20th century, the moment when all might have been lost, requires some suitably intense acting. This is not provided. The three main protagonists rarely show signs of stress. They contemplate the downfall of civilisation as if it is a thorny little academic problem. They resemble town hall planners agonising over whether or not to permit the development of a block of flats, not Britain's war leaders.

What might be disappointing for the audience is revealing for the historian. Careful research from the playwright makes this often feel as much like a history lecture as a play. Let's not underestimate the 'well I never' factor, deliberately made a central part of the play's appeal.

Such is the scale of the crisis currently facing the continent that comparisons with Britain's darkest hour are, if not valid, then at least less invalid than usual. Britain stands apparently helpless in the face of a potential economic collapse. A retreat back into recession is thought likely in 2012. Crises test our leaders: action or inaction, this road or that one, become of desperate importance. Just as they did in 1940.

For all the leaked reports, the convention of secrecy which prevents Cabinet debates from reaching the public eye is a thoroughly effective way of shielding such doubts. Churchill pretended no such wavering had ever occurred in his memoirs; it was not until 30 years later that the minutes revealed the truth. Three Days In May is a reminder that, however resolute Britain's leaders may appear in the face of the eurozone crisis, their public confidence won't be a true reflection of their doubts behind closed doors. Then, as now, no one person – not even Churchill – could be completely sure of the path ahead.