George VI is a monarch in living memory for some, having died in 1952, fairly young, of cancer. He has been popularly portrayed as a decent man, albeit with doubts, in the film The King’s Speech, the TV film Bertie and Elizabeth, and at the beginning of The Crown‘s first season on Netflix.
Winston Churchill has become a legend of the 20th century; a statesman so tall in popular culture he was once voted the greatest of Britons. He lived to be an old man, infirm yet fiercely intelligent, loyal to the decaying Empire.
In Wally Sewell’s Power Luncheon, three of the lunch meetings between the King and his First Minister are mined for satire with excessive artistic license.
It is wartime, yet the monarch (Peter Saracen), we are led to believe, is more interested in personal one-upmanship than affairs of state and is distracted by gramophone records of the time.
Churchill (Edmund Dehn), is the stronger portrayal, the politician who flatters, cajoles, and bristles at what he perceives to be slights and insults. He may profess to support the monarchy, but also delivers a biting critique on “papier mache thrones”. His is a commanding presence throughout.
In these meetings it is hard to have any empathy for a monarch who bleats, whines, and acts in a manner which would surely cause any statesman to worry about his fitness for office.
I have rarely left a show wanting to slap a King, but I was close to it here. On Churchill’s stated opinion that everything can be placed on a spectrum between “courage and cowardice”, this George would surely fall short.
Anthony Shubshall’s direction is fairly static, keeping the two men for long periods at either end of the dinner table, eating and drinking from empoty glasses and plates.
The only set decoration is a large rug, a table, a map of the world, and a screen which doubles as a film screen to scene-set each of the three lunches. Churchill’s cigar is positively phallic; George’s mannered speech (as we all know now, he had a carefully disguised stammer) is waspish and dangerously close to camp.
For me, Power Luncheon was a little on the slow side, and far too concerned with the minutiae of the personal. With Operation Mincemeat showing in London it was interesting to hear the brief mention of the invasion of Sicily, but no state secrets here were discussed.
Even D-Day’s projected, catastrophic losses only served to underline the attitudes of both to the game of battle, when more could be said. I would have welcomed a little more on the abdication which placed George into the hot seat of majesty.
Power Luncheon continues at the Hope Theatre until 29 January, produced by the Entire Theatre Company. Book your tickets here.