As the theme of “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” fades and Big Ben tolls, a third emblem of the United Kingdom comes to life. The figure of Sir Winston Churchill stirs.
When the Palace of Westminster clock strikes thirteen, the statues of Parliament Square are granted a magical hour of animation when they can indulge in their favourite pastimes: in the case of Churchill, whisky, cigars and listening to himself speak. He wants to expand on his life, now so abbreviated by guidebooks to his beloved London as to scarcely warrant 75 words.
There’s no shortage of material as he charts an erratic course through 50 years in politics during which he held practically every high office. Hearing the words as if from his own lips, it’s a personal tale too — from his childhood relationships with his “enchanted star” mother and overbearing father, to his love for his wife, his constant, darling Clementine.
The man often seen as a pugnacious bulldog is simply “Pug” to his wife and she his Sweet Cat. “I kiss your vision as it rises before my mind," he writes; "Your dear heart throbs often in my own.”
The adoration of his wife is equalled only by his love of the written word and we are, of course, treated to one of his polemic speeches from the height of the struggles of World War II. The effect is powerful now; in context and at the time it must have been nothing short of electrifying.
There’s more to the man than war-time leader, and he is keen to flesh out that paltry guidebook entry to show his prowess both as historian, writer and artist. While the production is comprehensive, it’s also highly entertaining.
The script is peppered with Churchill’s put-downs and pithy humour. It initially feels surprising, out of place, but those who knew him commented on his “Puckish humour," his “boyish chuckle” and “tremendous sense of fun." Utton combines some of these ripostes, which were intended to flatten but leave the impudent alive, to ensure that Churchill always gets the final word – and the last laugh. One self-confessedly cheap gag is perhaps not worthy of the great man, but does get a huge jingoistic cheer.
What is perhaps less well defined is that Churchill was described as an emotional sort of man, moved to uncontrollable and unashamed tears. There could be a little more shade. That said, Pip Utton puts in an assured and compelling performance and, as was said of Churchill himself, his words seem to “bubble up, without notice, without effort”.
It is indeed a magical hour, and one of Utton’s finest.
Show times: Runs to 26 August 2012; 12 noon.
Ticket Prices: £10 (£9).