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Review of Happy Warriors at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Happy Warriors production photograph
Happy Warriors – Credit Mitzi De Maragary

The name Churchill carries with it a scent of aphrodisiac. It taints the senses with distant memories of war and the tenacity of the then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, in helping to orchestrate Hitler’s defeat during one of the darkest periods in history. Randolph Churchill, the only son of this victorious war-time leader, albeit he had four female siblings, certainly inherited the glory and the weight associated with his father’s fame.

James Hugh Macdonald’s Happy Warriors, based on a real-life episode between Randolph Churchill (Simon Pontin) and the illustrious English writer Evelyn Waugh (Neil Chinneck), offers a renewed look at the oft-maligned Randolph. The play is set in a farmhouse in a village in Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) during World War II when the possibility of a German victory was still on the horizon. Marshal Tito’s guerilla army has proved successful in liberating the town from German occupation and Prime Minister Churchill is so impressed with Tito’s partisan forces that he sends his son Randolph to oversee the supply of munitions to bolster Tito’s battle against their common enemy.

Randolph, who has the rank of Major, is lonely in this godforsaken outpost and requests the company of his old drinking mate Evelyn Waugh, at that time a captain in the Royal Horse Guard awaiting a fresh war assignment. Although the two men were buddies in the gin mills of London – and were reported to have similar temperaments – in Happy Warriors Waugh is contemptuous of his host, considering Randolph to be a braggart, a womaniser and a coward. Add to this volatile scenario Zoric Panic (Martha Dancy), a housekeeper who is a Communist zealot, scornful of her two ‘capitalist’ English lodgers and longing to bear arms against the Nazis, and you have a semblance of how the narrative might progress. Much is also made of the fact that Zoric is the worst cook on the planet, a repetitive strain in the play that borders on monotony, as do the endless round of jibes between Randolph and Evelyn. Happy Warriors could do with some editing, as too much of its dialogue winds back on the same note, but this does not in anyway diminish the force and beauty of its writing.

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Overall, the structure of the play is well realised by Andrew C Wadsworth’s direction, as is the set design (Sorcha Corcoran) which captures the characters in their real-life situation. Adding impact to the setting is the sophistication of Aaron J Dootson’s lighting design which conveys the very air that exists outside the farmhouse, while Nico Menghini’s sound design resonates hard with the weapons of war.

If a theatre-goer were to be influenced by the writing, it would appear that playwright Macdonald wishes only to perpetuate the idea that Randolph Churchill was a bounder and a cad. If this was the purpose, then Macdonald has failed. Simon Pontin presents us with quite a sympathetic Randolph, one who has been cursed at birth, since all his gifts will be overshadowed by his father’s success. If he is a womaniser, known for his good looks and charm, so be it. It is a talent in which he excels, one with no connection to daddy. As for his insufferable arrogance, it may have much to do with an identification with his paternal grandfather, Lord Randolph Churchill. All is forgiven in Happy Warriors, and Randolph’s character revisited when he intervenes to thwart an attempted suicide but to say more will reveal too much of the plot.

Finally, the character of Evelyn Waugh is thinly drawn, even though he was the more fascinating of the two men. Up to the present day, Waugh is celebrated not only as a great novelist, but also for his courage during the Second World War, attributes which are ignored in the play. His character is little more than a waspish male with petty complaints, an extremely limited portrayal of his achievements. But there is always a choice in drama as to where to place the weight and, in Happy Warriors, it is placed firmly on the side of Randolph – perhaps more for his father than for himself.

Happy Warriors revisits an integral moment in time while reacquainting us with two characters who left an indelible mark on English history. Well worth seeing.

4 stars

Review by Loretta Monaco

A new play, ‘Happy Warriors’, written by 91-year old James Hugh Macdonald, makes its worldwide premiere Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre in Highgate from 28th March – 22nd April.

Happy Warriors is set in a war zone and based on a true story. Winston Churchill, up to his eyes in WW2, sends his son Randolph Churchill to Yugoslavia to join a mission to aid Tito by supplying arms to him and his army of partisans to help rid the country of the occupying German forces. Randolph, renowned for being egotistical, requests a companion of equal intellectual standing is sent to join him – preferably Evelyn Waugh. Back in England, Captain Waugh is waiting for a new posting. After much deliberation, he finally agrees to join Randolph.

Along with Randolph and Evelyn, who are billeted in a small deserted farmhouse, is Zora Panic, a young, belligerent, university-educated partisan. Zora is far from thrilled when told by her guerrilla commander she must learn to be less arrogant ahead of joining her comrades in the battle against the German army. In addition, she was told that her employment in the menial position of cook/housekeeper to the two Englishmen must be endured. Zora takes out her indignation, frustration and anger on the two men. What could possibly go right?

WT Stage Limited proudly presents:
Written by James Hugh Macdonald
Directed by Andrew C Wadsworth

Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Highgate Village
London N6 4BD
Wed March 28th – Sunday April 22nd 2018
Running time 2 hours 15 mins


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