Peace In Our Time
By Noel Coward
The Union Theatre, 229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR to 4 April, 2020.
Tues- – Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sat & Sun 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 45 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7261 9876
Review: William Russell 12 March.
There are plays that are forgotten but deserve to be rediscovered but this 1946 play by Noel Coward, a massive flop at the time, about a group of people who drink in a pub near Sloane Square during the Second World War is one which should be left to slumber unseen – if not unread. The Germans have invaded Britain and taken over and in this very peculiar pub with one of those mixtures of customers that only a playwright could assemble the landlord and his wife cope as best they can. The landlord Fred Shattock, well played by Patrick Bailey, is the spirit of Britain figure, the carry on regardless one we like to believe ever existed but which the depleted loo paper supplies of today suggest otherwise. His wife Nora, a fine deeply felt performance by Virge Gilchrist is sometimes stoic, sometimes about as thick as two planks as she too carries on and makes a cup of tea whenever a crisis erupt, and they do at regular intervals.
Coward apparently was inspired to write it by what he had seen happened in Occupied France but the collection of stock characters assembled in this within striking distance of Sloane Square but more Bow Bells pub shows that somehow he had lost contact with real life. The play did not appeal to audiences when first staged in 1946 – the last thing the British of the time wanted was to go to a story about losing the war – and although Coward reinvented himself as a cabaret artist at Las Vegas and a tax exile his position as a dominant man of the theatre had gone for good. He made some films, wrote more musicals, and turned himself into a rather grand old queen with a way with words which, of course, got widely quoted.
These Chelsea dropouts, a couple of posh folk from the country, a fliberty gibbet actress or two, the inevitable dumb barmaid, the not saying much working class folk, and the quisling magazine editor dropping witticisms (Dominic McChesney channelling The Master) with a rent boy in tow who rapidly moves on to German officers are pasteboard while the behaviour of the Resistance led by a deeply unconvincing posh doctor is amateur to say the least. By the end Doris the gutsy daughter, nicely done by Molly Crookes is dead, the allies are invading Britain and the Resistance having captured the cruel Gestapo officer responsible are about to set him alight after dousing him with petrol. The lighter is given to Fred but whether he uses it is anybody’s guess. There is a black out and Coward singing Don’t Lets be Beastly to the Germans rings out. It is a splendid satirical number but somehow not quite appropriate.
Phil Willmott has staged it all effectively, found with designer Reuben Speed a way of letting the audience see the action from both sides of the bar face on when necessary, and the large cast is well drilled. The play is the last in a season of so-called essential classics designed to mark V.E. Day 75 years on. The first was Tom Brown’s Schooldays updated so that the boys became Battle of Britain pilots, the second was Lionel Bart’s musical Blitz celebrating the indomitable East End spirit as well as the inbred anti Semitism of the populace, something which was not actually clear when first staged.
Everything Coward is clearly wanting to say had already been said in 1942 in Cavalcanti’s fine film Went the Day Well about the Nazi occupation of an English village. Peace in Our Time was revived a few years back in Bath when Michael Billington welcomed the opportunity to see it but not the play itself. This second chance to see it and to see it well performed is welcome but that is the most one can say. This is a three star production but at best a two star play.
Fred Shattock: Patrick Bailey.
Nora Shattock: Virge Gilchrist.
Doris Shattock: Molly Crookes.
Stephen Shattock: Samuel Oakes.
Phyllis Mere: Liv Fowler.
Lyia Vivian: Caitlin Rutter.
Georgia Bourne: Helen Rose Hampton.
Janet Braid: Carlotta Lucking.
Chorley Bannister: Dominic McChesney.
Mr Grainger: Anthony Keetch.
Mrs Grainger: Katy Feeney.
Billy Grainger: Robert Lane.
Alma Boughton: Jemma Watling.
Mrs Massiter: Kate Feeney.
Bobby Paxton: Joe Mason.
Alfie Blake: Malcolm Davies.
Mrs Lily Blake: Sue Swallow.
Doctor Venning: Will Forester.
Albrecht Richter: Joseph Tyler Todd.
Kurt Forster: Joe Mason.
Other parts played by members of the company.
Director: Phil Willmott.
Set Design: Reuben Speed.
Composer/Sound Designer: Ralph Warman.
Costume Designer: Penn O’Gara.
Lighting Designer: Harvey Nowak-Green.
Production Photographer:Philip Swallow.