Director: Philip Franks
Writer: David Morley
Inspired by real events, A Cold Supper Behind Harrods tells the story of three Special Operations Executive Agents working during the Second World War: John Harrison, Vera Atkins and Leo Marks.
David Morley’s play re-imagines a meeting between the three, in 1997, as they come to the BBC to record interviews for a documentary. Leo Marks (played by Anton Lesser) was a code maker; Vera Atkins (Stephanie Cole) trained female agents to drop behind enemy lines, and John Harrison ( David Jason) was a POW, held by the Gestapo. As they wait to be called, a fallen colleague is remembered. Patricia: stylish, glamorous, “dazzling every man in the SOE”, was one of Atkins’ agents. They know she was captured and didn’t survive the war. The details of her death are hazy.
A Cold Supper Behind Harrods: the title suggests a certain kind of nostalgic, middle-brow production. The appearance of three huge names from television and theatre; known for crowd-pleasers and iconic roles, leads us to assume that what we are watching will be cosy, familiar, and not too taxing.
Morley instead releases a drip feed of horror. We start out with pleasantries; and general patter – the Labour landslide, the good old days – but this gives way to specifics. We eventually learn what has happened to Patricia, and the truth, delivered by Harrison, leaves a trail of devastation. Politeness gives way, tensions rise and old scores need to be settled.
The cast delivers a masterclass: David Jason uses his ability to physically craft a character from the inside out to build a vulnerable John Harrison who is at the mercy of addictions and unresolved trauma. Between the Atkins / Harrison dynamic, Anton Lesser as Leo Marks offers a more measured perspective. His anger at Patricia’s fate is the most visceral. He remembers her with real poignancy, still feeling the place on his cheek where she kissed him.
Stephanie Cole has serious form when it comes to playing formidable women, and her performance as Vera Atkins is a tour de force of steely reserve. Cole is given some of the best lines: recalling her time in post-war Germany; “the fog thickened as Berlin fell” is delivered with pathos and precision. The director, Philip Franks, trusts his actors implicitly, his camera observes but never intrudes. When you’ve got talent of this calibre, what’s the need for bells and whistles?
The application of restraint fundamentally underpins A Cold Supper Behind Harrods as a project. Morley urges us to re-think how we process war, especially those reassuringly in the past. His script pinpoints how the war is seen by different generations. For those born just after the war, there is a temptation to read the conflict in over-simplified, jingoistic terms. After all, we won. But for those who were there, glory was not a guarantee.
A Cold Supper reveals the fault lines when thinking in broad strokes about ‘heroism’ and ‘sacrifice’. Just like the play itself, first impressions are not always accurate, and the truth does not, necessarily, set us free.
Available to rent here