Power Luncheon by Wally Sewell
Director: Anthony Shrubsall
Producer: Lucy Appleby
Wally Sewell's new play, Power Luncheon, is a two man show depicting the developing relationship between King George VI (Peter Saracen) and his first minister Winston Churchill (Edmund Dehn), who used to meet weekly for private luncheons to discuss affairs of state. The action of the play takes place between 1940 and 1944.
In the first scene, set in September 1940, we learn that each man is the other's second choice. Churchill did everything in his power to keep King George's brother, Edward VIII on the throne during the abdication crisis, while the King would have preferred Lord Halifax as his Prime Minister, precisely because of Churchill's devotion to his brother.
Over lunch, during which the king pours Churchill glass after glass of 1904 Bordeaux while abstaining himself, we learn that they have much in common. Distant relationships with their mothers have led both of them to form exceptionally close ones with their wives. Both are religious, but while the King's Christianity is deeply and sincerely felt, Churchill's appears more like a garment of state to be adopted when the occasion is appropriate. At one stage he tells the King he was a Druid, although he appears to have lost interest in the order on entering politics.
A seemingly amiable struggle for one-upmanship becomes apparent when the King asks if he can call his Prime Minister Winston - the only prime minister he ever called by his first name - but concludes that it would be better if Winston continued to address him as 'Your Majesty.' The King's slight ascendancy over Churchill at the beginning of the scene, symbolised by Churchill's excessive drinking and cigar smoking, is rather shockingly reversed at the end, when Churchill spills wine on the carpet and the King goes down on his hands and knees before him to mop it up.
In the final scene of the play, which takes place on D-Day in June 1944, the King's subservience to Churchill has become shockingly apparent. On this occasion it is Churchill who remains sober while the King downs the Bordeaux and smokes cigarette after cigarette. It emerges that both men had wished to be present at the Normandy landings, but that the King had begged Churchill not to attend since he would have felt his position as head of armed forces undermined if his prime minister had gone without him.
Peter Saracen's George VI bears little resemblance to the serene family man of popular legend. The strain of the war years have taken their toll and he appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. His disintegration is convincing and painful to watch and forms a direct contrast to Edmund Dehn's Churchill, whose very stillness conveys his increasing confidence and arrogance.
This is a true clash of the Titans, uncomfortable to watch but electrically performed, in a way that overturns all our preconceived ideas.
Power Luncheon was premiered at the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes on Wednesday, 8 January 2020.
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