The theatre V.E. Day Commemorations are officially underway with a few big events ahead including the relocation of Sheridan’s The Rivals to a 1940s airbase as the National Theatre stages Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s much anticipated new comedy Jack Absolute Flies Again next month. But first, the Union Theatre in Southwark has found a long-forgotten Noel Coward play written in 1946 which assume the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and conquered the UK shortly afterwards. Given our modern perception of Coward’s work as all pithy witticisms, cocktails and cigarette holders, a counter-factual history set entirely in the private bar of an ordinary London pub may surprise you. But Coward’s writing about human nature and experience is far more relevant than it is often allowed to be, and with a frighteningly prescient understanding of nostalgia, Peace in Our Time receives its first UK revival at an appropriate time.
Last year Matthew Warchus heeded these pleas to unleash Coward from his period confinement and his pseudo-40s production of Present Laughter at the Old Vic has been handsomely rewarded with critical acclaim and plenty of award nominations. Here, the Union have learnt these lessons and while this version of Peace in Our Time by necessity retains its Second World War setting, director Phil Willmott largely avoids the mannered and overly-stylised interpretation of Coward’s characters.
Instead he creates a show that has many salient points to make to modern audiences who have lived through the pomp and misdirected patriotism of recent years where our history has become a political tool to sway emotion with rose-tinted tales of former glories, a world that never really existed. Knowing that as long ago as the mid-1940s Britain’s military past was being evoked for dubious purposes seems prophetic and Coward’s reference in this play to Britain’s ‘bloated pride’ and unreasonable belief in its past attainments is a fascinating one given how forcibly the Second World War has since featured in modern rhetoric, used as a means to convince and control.
The substance of the plot essentially focuses on whether it is best to collaborate or resist the German occupation and the extent to which different characters play along with the regime. Coward uses the timeline of the original conflict to establish the parameters of this two Act play which opens in 1940 and ends in 1945, reimagining the course of the war before setting history back on its original path. But he is sparring with the details of Nazi control and only one German officer has a significant speaking role, focusing the rest of the story entirely on the British customers and publican family that create a patchwork of London life.
Peace in Our Time is a long play, running at around 2 hours and 40-minutes, and for some the over-arching jingoism could feel dated while the loose plot starts to drag in the second half as more characters are unnecessarily introduced and the story becomes a tad overloaded with melodrama. But Coward was an enthusiastic proponent of British verve and determination during the war, penning propagandist films including In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed all designed to bolster morale, so this play, while considerably different from his most celebrated works, had a social purpose designed to instill community and faith in the essential decency of most British people at a time of national crisis.
Yet, there is a darkness to this piece that slowly builds a sense of danger in which the severity of the Nazi regime increases as resistance to it grows. Coward drip feeds information to the audience carefully and conversationally, the fate of Winston Churchill, the position of the Royal family and the impact of restrictive measures on the freedom of the public, all delivered with little sensation, and in Willmott’s atmospherically smoky staging you feel the grip tightening as the years go by. The pub location gives Coward the freedom to introduce a vast array of characters, each of which is lightly but distinctly drawn as working men, middle class ladies and club singers rub shoulders with secretaries, retired couples and the odd German officer. There is a real coming together in Coward’s vision of London and of the pub in particular as a safe haven for all kinds of people.
This vision of early/mid-twentieth-century life is a familiar one and there are tones of Patrick Hamilton whose novels, particularly Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Hanover Square are centred around a specific homely pub, while also evoking Norman Collins’s book London Belongs to Me evokes the London working class experience of lodging houses filled with all kinds of people existing side by side on the eve of war. In 2018, the National Theatre successfully staged Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell a similar multi-perspective play set in a drinking den shortly after the war, so Coward’s focus on location is a significant one, giving his characters a reason to come together in a public space, but one that speaks to a wider strand of literature interested in the public house as a place of destruction and redemption.
Reuben Speed’s design is a canny one, a long bar which splits in two and is moved around the auditorium to mark the changes in scene and time period. It is also notable how the bar is used to shift the audience’s perspective from the customers to the publican’s family throughout the play with the very first scene primarily introducing the wider group. The bar staff stand with their back to the audience, but later the bar is shown in diagonal, giving equal weight to both sets of characters, while at others it is the landlord’s concerns that take precedence, facing the viewer while the patrons turn their backs to the auditorium. In this way Willmott uses the small Union space and structured lighting design quite effectively to move the psychology of the play along, while Ralph Warman’s sound design helps to create moments of intensity as external political dangers threaten the initial neutrality of the pub.
It is a play that relies on a lot of dramatic convenience with characters undertaking expanded lives off-stage that don’t always ring true and when Coward digresses into the growing resistance movement the play certainly starts to creak. In 1946, this would perhaps have resonated more significantly with an audience newly released from the burden of war and interested in what might have been, but it now feels rather heavy-handed, a forced attempt to demonstrate British pluck and to insist that small acts of resistance, however satisfying, will ultimately lead to bigger protests. Coward isn’t necessarily wrong to have such faith in British decency but Peace in Our Time is at its best in the less grandiose moments, where small groups of characters just talk about themselves and the impact of the war. This does more to create a feeling of good people holding-out together than elaborate story arcs and silly twists – but it is what people needed to hear in 1946.
As landlord Fred Shattock, Patrick Bailey holds the show together, a man who is everyone’s friend and a pillar of his community. Troubled by the loss of his pilot son in the disastrous Battle of Britain, Fred plays by the rules without approving of them and looks for any opportunity to cheat the system to benefit his beloved customers. Bailey’s warm performance builds a growing sense of determination in Fred to fight back while remaining rational about ensuring his business stays afloat. Virge Gilchirst is a more emotional figure as his wife Nora who happily stands by her husband but suffers under the pressure of maintaining a public presence.
The customers largely divide into resistance and collaborators, although the degrees of this alter across the play and Coward is reasonably forgiving of characters like singer Lyia (Caitlin Rutter) and the gender-swapped George (Helen Rose-Hampton) who accept drinks from the German officer and jolly along but later are clearly shown doing their bit. Interesting texture is provided by the other regulars including outspoken novelist Janet (Carlotta Lucking) whose fierce wit is showcased in a couple of explosive arguments, Jemima Watling’s Alma Boughton is a well-spoken woman who gives little away about her personal life but comes in every day for solidarity, while the Graingers (Katy Feeney and Robert Lane) forlornly prop-up the bar as they worry for the fate of their son imprisoned in an Isle of Wight concentration camp. Along with many others in this 22 character piece, they create a feeling of friends and neighbours, a community suffering and surviving together.
Coward is less forgiving of the collaborator faction using two of his creations to explore the arguments for playing up to the enemy and accepting their inevitable dominance. Joe Mason’s Bobby Paxton although a small role is a man who blows with the wind, a chancer happy to take what he can right now rather than worry about the future, while Dominic McChesney’s Chorley is a far more dangerous man who affects a veneer of smooth charm and indifference but has sold his soul so completely to the Nazi rulers that he looks to protect their (and his) interests above anything which threatens the safety of the pub. It is, however, a mistake for McChesney to pitch his performance as a kind of Coward impression, entirely out of kilter with the more sober performances of the rest of the cast and given Coward’s message in this play and his known anti-fascist views – he was reputedly on a Gestapo death list – to imagine the Nazi-sympathising Chorley as Coward seems wrong-headed.
Peace in Our Time may not be the best Noel Coward play but its long absence from the stage is an unreasonable one as it showcases a playwright whose work is far broader than the handful of comedies we frequently see. As a writer of human behaviour, Coward taps into the irrational fears that drive people to behave badly or selfishly under pressure, and in week when panic buying and stockpiling of household goods tops the news, this play gives us much to reflect on. Even after V.E. Day and European liberation Coward knew that courage is not distributed equally and level-headedness maybe less so, as the UK faces some of its biggest social challenges since the Second World War, time will tell if he’s right Counter-factual histories always ask us to consider what we would do in the same situation, which of us would collaborate and who would resist, can you be so sure you would act for the good of the whole rather than for yourself?