PEACE IN OUR TIME at London's Union Theatre
Reviewer's note: Many apologies but owing to the current health situation, I have been unable to attend the press review of Peace In Our Time at the Union Theatre, Southwark. Having seen the two previous productions by the Phil Wilmmott company in its celebration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I am certain that it will be a production that offers authenticity and nostalgia and it is with deep regret that I was not there to support this great company.

So - here is my summary which hopefully will induce others to go and see this production.

Noel Coward, Britain's distinguished dramatist presents the possible fate of Britain had she lost the war in his observational drama Peace In Our Time, a provocative piece that encapsulates the characterisation and stoicism of a people whose spirit and courage will not be defeated. Overcome in war, can they ever survive the peace? 

At this small, intimate theatre is the chance to see this forgotten drama of 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation in the first ever revival played by the Phil Wilmott company, its third production in the trilogy of the Essential Classics season. Written in 1946 and in two Acts, Mr Coward said in his introduction 'There have been other plays about occupied countries but the one thing, however, that differentiates it from other works on the same theme is the fact that the occupied country in question happens to be England, which has been neither invaded nor occupied by an enemy nation for eight hundred years.' The idea of Peace In Our Time 'was conceived in Paris shortly after the Liberation. I began to suspect that the physical effect of four years intermittent bombing is far less damaging to the intrinsic character of a nation than the spiritual effect of four years' enemy occupation.' The premise of Coward's post-war play imagines how ordinary English people might have reacted to Nazi occupation. How many would join a resistance movement? How many would become collaborators or profiteers? How many would continue their lives as if nothing had happened? An unashamedly outspoken script that thrusts character symbolism in the fore, Peace In Our Time explores the themes of resistance, resolve and identity.

Set entirely in the Shattock's London pub, The Shy Gazelle, during WWII after the occupation of Britain by the Germans, the death of Churchill and the creation of a POW camp on the Isle of Wight, we meet a body of Londoners, a sort of microcosm of English society, existing, interacting and going forward through those testing times.Over a period of four years the lives of this gathering of proud Londoners, who are doing their best in the face of adversity, soldier on. Life may wither them, they may become weary and shabby but their patriotism will not flounder: 'love of my country and hatred of its enemies, this blessed plot (Shakespeare) this earth, this realm, this England'. Jingoistic platitudes? Opinions are divided. On the one hand is the faithful patriot, on the other is betrayal as epitomised in the character of  Chorley Bannister, a self styled intellectual who shows blatant regard for the Nazi philosophy, believing it to be the best thing for England. A nation divided! 

It is in this setting (that I am sure will be shown with thought and detail) that the characters grumble about the indignity of foreign occupation, rationing and the dwindling stock of alcohol, relying on watery beer and Stubbs. Chin up and all that but beneath the mask of positivity there is a bubbling anger and frustration which allows Coward to inject moments of levity and humour.

What is most striking is that these are ordinary people who, in better times, would lead ordinary but contented lives. Thrust into this situation their management offers us insight into their characters, their strengths and their resistance. On the darker side is the torture and death of the Shattock's daughter Doris by the Gestapo, the imprisonment and escape of her brother and the loss of normality. How they deal with this is the pivot of this 1947 drama/comedy. The stiff upper lip is maintained and that might distance the reader/audience from full empathy. I would have been interested to see how the actors portrayed these emotions.
 
This is stoicism and patriotism rather than succumbing to human emotion. Life goes on, as Fred Shattock comments. We just have to bear it, cope with it and get on with it. Emotion must not block the effort.

Checking out the cast list I was intrigued to note that George Bourne, the calm officer/leader is being played by a female member of the cast. True, in theatre now, neutrality is totally acceptable and we are all quite comfortable with that but somehow an image of a pipe smoking squadron leader was how I had viewed this role. Again, I would have been interested to see how the Company portrayed this switch. Ah yes, dear Noel, times are changing and how you might have applauded.

Sitting here, typing this review, I cannot help but think about our current times in 2020 Britain. Brexit, social differences, unrest, world health. What would Coward have made of it all?

Ah, if only a cup of Nora Shattock's tea could cure all the malaise!

Footnote: The play takes its title from the common misquotation of Neville Chamberlain when he referred to having 'peace for our time' during his speech after he arrived back from the Munich Conference of 1938.
 
Listings

Playing until 4 April 2020 at The Union Theatre, Arch 22 & 23 Old Unison Arches, 229 Union Street, SE1 0LR (five minutes from Southwark Station on the Jubilee Line)

Tuesday-Saturday evenings 7.30 pm; matinees 2.30 pm Saturday and Sunday from 21 March 2020.
Tickets £22, concessions £20, under 18s £15
www.uniontheatre.biz
020 7261 9876