Pip Utton’s acclaimed one-man show, ‘Churchill’, which visited Ashbrittle last week, presented the audience with a sense of being in the company of a legend – but one prepared to reveal some deeply personal reflections.
In extracting from the vast archive of material about a man who was a soldier, Nobel Prizewinning writer, artist, statesman, wartime leader and consummate politician, who served as the country’s Prime Minister in both war and peace, Utton of necessity has to be selective. His 90 minute solo performance, in essence, invites us to spend that time sharing his interpretation of a great man whose wit – sometimes sardonic, often ironic – and whose depth of emotions make him both compelling and engagingly human. It is a performance which also stresses Churchill’s moral conviction and steadfastness, obliquely and teasingly inviting a comparison with today’s political leaders, both at home and internationally.
The opening scene has Churchill leaving his office and mounting his Whitehall pedestal, to become the iconic figure so many of the postwar generation recognise as the nation’s wartime saviour. But, assisted by a member of the audience, he is helped down to our level and shares with us some of his most intimate feelings and experiences, some of them intensely and genuinely moving. Utton’s script gives personal and convincing depth to known biographical details – his parents’ influence (particularly his father’s), his tender, devoted love of his wife, his anguish at the appalling human cost of WW1, his pleasure in painting and his love of whisky. In effect, we are invited into his office and allowed to share his company for a while.
The show is very simply staged without the benefit of conventional theatre equipment but the visual details – dominant Union flags, a globe, whisky decanter, cigar, fob watch, black fountain pen – are all pertinent to the narrative and simple props are used to telling effect. One key sequence alluding to the carnage of WW1 and Churchill’s resulting anguish is conveyed with just a map and a few tiny model soldiers from his boyhood collection which he angrily scatters and then somewhat despairingly tries to find.
Utton’s performance is a tour de force. He manages to reproduce the deep, growling voice, the idiosyncratic diction and speech cadences we recognise from Churchill’s recorded speeches – and uses them to deliver both intimate personal reflection and majestic oratory. His physical presence is equally convincing – the jowly glower, the shuffling gait of a elderly man but, at the same time, conveying the imposing stature of a remarkable global icon who ascends to his pedestal at the end of the show (appropriately helped by Taunton’s Mayor, Libby Lisgo), leaving us to dance to Vera Lynn.
The show’s current tour around rural communities in Somerset has been arranged by Take Art, the county’s pioneering arts charity that provides opportunities for people of all ages to experience and participate in theatre, dance and music. Their wide-ranging and ambitious programme of events and workshops, including those in schools and in early years groups can be found on www.takeart.org. Ashbrittle, Churchinford, Wootton Courtney, Hatch Beauchamp and Chaffcombe are not naturally on the touring circuit of shows that have come from the Edinburgh Festival but Take Art is ensuring that they are now served.
Review: Gill Paltridge