Dr. Stephen Jenkins, an historian, is invited to Sir Winston Churchill’s birthday by Churchill’s son, Randolph. Jenkins assumes he will have direct access, only to discover, as a kind of intern, he’s expected to serve and tend bar. Randolph himself is insufferable, a harbinger of things to come.Sir Winston himself is gruff, petulant, loathe to engage in conversation. His wife and daughter are pleasant, but all are at a loss to get past long-standing feuds and unhealed wounds. Daughter Sarah is the buoyant, chipper, “black sheep”; nothing criminal really, perhaps just unseemly. Randolph still (understandably) nurses a grudge because his father knew his wife was having an affair. Just getting through the traditional steps of a birthday supper (drinks, small-talk, dining, gifts, cake) feel like dragging the anchor of the Queen Mary up a mountain. In the best possible sense. The dysfunction of this patrician family is quite entertaining.
Reminiscent of The Lion in Winter, with less tawdriness and more grandiosity, the guests snipe and poke at each other. Playwright Paul Baker has a scintillating gift for acrid, withering dialogue that keeps the first act moving with intelligent banter. In the second act, the nature of the discussions turns rather more serious. Using wit and jibe as a dodge carries Winston’s Birthday pretty far, but when the time comes (as the Walrus said) the Prime Minister takes responsibility for the hurts, insults and regrettable decisions he’s imposed upon others. Baker takes the opportunity to explore certain questions from Churchill’s life in the context of culture and history. Like so many of us he explains the particular circumstances, then grudgingly concedes.
Winston’s Birthday is a splendid balance between accuracy, history, precision and comedy. We see the human side of those who belong to the aristocracy, revealed in all their fallible glory. They are not reduced to objects of scorn or derision, but rather, retain their charm and foibles. We are able to see each character fully, without robbing them of their dignity. This nimble, sharp, adept cast (Brian Hoffman, Jackie L. Kemp, Allyn Carrell, Mary Margaret Pyeatt, Michael Speck) is more than equal to the task, setting tone, timing and temperament perfectly. Treat yourself to an evening or afternoon at Winston’s Birthday, and bask in the delight of well-wrought, engaging theatre.
Theatre Britain presents Winston’s Birthday, playing September 8th – October 1st, 2017. Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202. www.theatre-britain.com