Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Phil Willmott
After a cold reception on its debut in 1947, Peace in Our Time took on a shadowed role in Coward’s catalogue – performed infrequently and not included on lists of his greatest works. It’s a lengthy examination of an alternate history, one where the Nazi forces win victory over Britain in 1940. The drama takes place exclusively in an inner-London pub near Sloane Square where the publicans host a range of working and middle class characters probing and straining with questions of resistance or collaboration with the new Nazi rulers.
It finds a natural home here under the arches of the Union Theatre as part of a series of wartime plays marking the 75th anniversary of V.E. day. Phil Wilmott has made a specialism of seeking out the less performed or less popular works, and turning them out to reflect something new and special for a modern audience. They’ve done a cracking job here – a long, wordy play that’s filled with moral and philosophical arguments that still has tension and real, gripping excitement.
With 22 characters, there’s a lot on. Thankfully it’s straightforward to grasp most of them in decent depth. We have representatives of a range of British lives – an upper-class editor, dismissive and repelled by the lower orders. A bolshy writer who straightforwardly leads resistance efforts. Parents grieving for their dead children after the first few months of fighting. Opportunists, considered patriots, and German occupiers. Smart dialogue keeps us going, bolstered by a number of set-piece speeches from a number of the population. These not only let us dive into the weighty questions raised in depth but feel like they’re written to give Coward (a noted patriot) a moment to expound a muscular defence of good British values.
Through the course of a few years of action, we see a population divide and become more assured – either in its belief in resistance or its adherence to collaboration. The evolution of the German officer Albrecht Richter is particularly interesting as a study of how an occupying force may act – he moves from being a civil and non-threatening drinker to a torturer and body dumper when the mask slips.
Full of little insights into social order, word use, interactions and everyday life that must have been unremarkable at the time of writing, there are fascinating glimpses into wartime and post-war Britain. As pub owner Mr. Shattock, Patrick Bailey is super, Dominic McChesney as the upper-class collaborator editor Chorley Bannister is smooth, and as glibly elitist as you could ever want. There’s not a bum note among the rest of the 18-strong cast and as they work through Reuben Speeds’ versatile, atmospheric set they breathe real life into Wilmott’s direction and Coward’s ideas.
It is long and can be a challenge, but it’s an intellectually exciting and dramatically tight production.
Runs until 4 April 2020