Theatre / “Table Manners”. Written by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Michael Weston. At Belconnen Theatre until October 28. Reviewed by LEN POWER
THIS 70 minute one-hander devised and performed by British actor Pip Utton was a perfect match for its largely older audience.A companion piece to his self-styled “monodramas” about Maggie Thatcher, Adolf Hitler, Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, Francis Bacon, Casanova and others, it relies on a mixture of useful historical information combined with the gentlemanly art of one-upmanship as Utton’s characters ridicule the less gifted individuals who surround them – especially if they’re French.
The actor takes us back to Winston Churchill’s childhood games of military strategy, his brief time in Bangalore with the cavalry, a stint as a war correspondent in Cuba where he acquired his taste for cigars, a cavalry advance in Sudan and the two great world wars in which he was a player.
Utton’s Churchill is quick to proclaim his own credentials — 50 years at Westminster, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland twice, a painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first honorary citizen of the United States, and, in named a 2002 BBC poll as the Greatest Briton in History.
Even as he comes to life and steps down from the plinth where he stands as a public statue at Westminster, he takes a humorous swipe at his fellow “statues” – earlier PM Lloyd George, the doomed Abraham Lincoln and the “great” Nelson Mandela, whose statue the London pigeons are trying to whiten. It seemed most unlikely that the Churchill we see in this play would have admired the African leader.
Snobbish, perennially witty and fond of repeating his own jokes, like the one about Labour leader Clement Attlee being “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, this Churchill, in the hands of Utton, is also keen to justify his past actions, most notably the deaths many believe he caused of over 50,000 people in the Dardanelles.
His sorrow for the families of the dead is hard to credit, but Utton does not seek to analyse the shortcomings of his character and it is unreasonable to expect him to do so. Even so, his hair-raising depiction of Luftwaffe’s attacks on Britain might have made space for just a quick look at the Dresden bombings. A younger and more critical generation would have picked up on this.
As an actor, Utton adopts a little touch of Churchill’s accent, scarcely varying the tone and pace but rather relying for his effect on humour and clever underplaying.
Even when proclaiming his “This Was Their Finest Hour” speech, he kept his voice soft, well suited to the intimate surrounds of Street 2 and hitting the spot with a captivated audience of theatregoers responding to the brilliant rhetoric and lovable eccentricities of an adored wartime leader.