06/02/2016 - 27/02/2016
12/03/2016 - 02/04/2016
The Court Theatre explores the domestic turbulence that lies behind the great façade of Winston Churchill
By any definition of greatness, Sir Winston Churchill fits the bill. Yet often behind a grand façade lies domestic turbulence.
On the 51st anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, The Court Theatre’s production of Winston’s Birthday brings together four excessive personalities from this iconic British family at a luncheon to celebrate Winston’s 88th birthday in 1962. The Churchills are forced to confront half a century of unfinished family business which includes family lies, evasions and resentments.
Though they never attracted the attention of social services, the Churchills were a highly dysfunctional family. Winston, the centrifugal force, contrived to be oblivious to anything domestic. Randolph and Sarah, two of Churchill’s five children doomed to live in the shadow of greatness, lived conspicuously unfulfilled and undisciplined lives. This was all too much for Churchill’s perfectionist wife Clementine, who regularly fled to holiday or hospital.
Into the mix infiltrates Dr Jenkins, a fictional character whose style of scholarship and social skills symbolises the new meritocratic Britain that will render the world of the Churchills obsolete.
Winston slid very quickly from being Prime Minister (until 1955) to silent backbencher, with a gloomy view of the world and his own achievements. But occasionally the old triumphalist flame still flickered. New Zealand playwright Paul Baker has set Winston’s Birthday on one of those days.
Baker did not commence writing this play as a Churchill expert or fan but the man and his place in history got under his skin. When watching, for the first time, film of his funeral, Baker was surprised to find that when those great cranes on the Thames bowed in respect as the funeral barge passed, he became quite emotional.
Winston’s Birthday has been written as an historical comedy, and director Lara Macgregor is prepared to showcase all the comic elements of this iconic yet eccentric British family. “At the heart of Winston’s success is a craving for his father’s approval. This launched a lifetime course of self-improvement in an attempt to achieve it,” says Macgregor. “In turn, Winston’s children crave the same approval from him. This play is a smart and funny imagining of what mending family rifts in pursuit of parental approval might entail. But as Clementine so aptly states – ‘You cannot mend a lifetime in a lunchtime’ – watch out Winston!”
Winston’s Birthday is a collaboration between The Court Theatre and Fortune Theatre, by arrangement with Playmarket and sponsored by The Court Supporters.
On the Tonkin and Taylor main stage at The Court Theatre
6 – 27 February 2016
Opening Night: 7:30pm Saturday 6th February
Forum: 6.30pm, Monday 8th February, after show with cast and crew
Matinee: Saturday 20th February
6.30pm, Monday & Thursday
7.30pm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday
To Book phone 03 963 0870 or visit www.courttheatre.org.nz
“They surprise us, delight us, court our despair and draw us into their respective truths.” – Theatreview
Winston’s Birthday is a collaboration between Fortune Theatre and The Court Theatre, by arrangement with Playmarket. Jonathon Hendry, Artistic Director at Fortune Theatre said, “We’re delighted to collaborate with The Court Theatre to bring Paul Baker’s hilarious and insightful comedy to local audiences. I’m struck by the clever balance of fact and conjecture that creates such an enthralling and entertaining experience.”
Ahi Karunaharan joins us as assistant director on this production as part of The Engine Room programme, a collaboration led by Auckland Theatre Company with partner organisations NZ Opera and Fortune Theatre. The programme provides an intensive six-month development programme designed to give directors the opportunity to develop their capacity to direct main-stage productions. “The name comes from the idea that, while actors are the heart and soul of the theatre experience, directors are the engine” says Hendry. “Since graduating from Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School Ahi has led ground breaking work in Auckland and Wellington and we are delighted to contribute to the development of his already exciting career.”
Find out more about Winston’s Birthday at www.fortunetheatre.co.nz
Fortune Theatre, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin
12 March – 2 April, 2016
Tuesday, 6.00pm, Wednesday – Saturday, 7.30pm, Sunday, 4.00pm
Lunchtime Bites: Thursday, 3 March,12.30pm in the Dunedin Public Library, ground floor. The actors will perform an excerpt from Winston’s Birthday with an opportunity to win tickets followed by afternoon tea. This is a FREE event.
Members’ Briefing: Sunday, 13 March. Meet at the Fortune bar at 3.00pm and join Assistant Director Ahi Karunaharan for a lively informal chat about Winston’s Birthday.
Forum: Tuesday, 15 March. Join the cast and crew for an open question and answer session following the 6.00pm show.
Adults $45, Early Bird (booking 1 month in advance) $37.50,
Opening Week Ticket (Sunday-Thursday) $37.50,
Senior Citizens $35, Community Services Card $35, Fortune Theatre Members $32, Tertiary Students $22 (2-for-1 tickets on Wednesdays with ID), High School Students $17.50, Group Discount (10+) $35
Bookings: Fortune Theatre, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin
Box Office 03 477 8323 or visit www.fortunetheatre.co.nz
Geoffrey Heath: Winston Churchill
Yvonne Martin: Lady Clementine Churchill
Jonathan Martin: Dr Stephen Jenkins
Hilary Halba: Sarah Churchill | Lady Audley
Roy Snow: Rudolph Churchill
Lara Macgregor: Director
Ahi Karunaharan: Assistant Director
Peter King: Set Designer
Deborah Moor: Costume Designers
Sean Hawkins: Lighting Designer
Giles Tanner: Sound Designer & Operator
Jo Bunce: Stage Manager
Christy Lassen: Properties Co-ordinator
Stimulating and satisfying
Review by Terry MacTavish 14th Mar 2016
“My father is a great man,” his son Randolph Churchill pontificates at the start of Winston’s Birthday. A great man, someone whose charisma and wisdom have a profound impact on others, to the point of changing history. But is the public figure what the family sees? If the truth were told, what family secrets might be laid bare? And what sinister political secrets might a determined researcher find in the great man’s papers? Are we about to see Winston venerated or reviled?
New Zealanders, even those who are currently voting to drop the Union Jack from our flag, are likely to find this play about the great Sir Winston Churchill as relevant as it is riveting. He was so important to us that in the early 1960s our neighbour, Otago Daily Times editor John Moffat, would not go on holiday without preparing an obituary, in case Winston died while he was away.
I know the paper was on Winston-watch, with daily bulletins, and I’m pretty sure on the day of his death, the front page was edged in black. The clever blending of fact and fiction in Winston’s Birthday allows us to rethink the part he played in our war history, as well as reflect on the battlefield that is family life.
There’s a case to be made for seeing author Paul Baker as a great man. A former rector of historic Waitaki Boys High, who raised standards and championed culture, as a playwright he is also a role model, for his determination to follow his dream despite ill-health, and for the integrity of his research and the dedication that caused him to strive for perfection in draft after draft of the play which became his passion.* The result is a play of real worth, with characters that come to vivid life in this outstanding Court/Fortune venture.
After the hurly-burly of Fringe Festival, with its exuberant chaotic performances in which anything might happen, sublime or abysmal, and technical glitches are almost guaranteed, the deep deep peace of an utterly professional production is undeniably welcome. Dynamic director Lara Macgregor has excelled as usual, creating entertaining and thought-provoking theatre for the Court, which has been recreated most efficiently at the Fortune by Assistant Director Ahi Karunaharan, superbly supported by Production Manager Lindsay Gordon and his proficient team.
The set is impressive: an English gentleman’s gracious library, huge chandelier suspended above curved walls divided by pillared arches, with a generous indication of hallways beyond, and windows giving onto a Constable landscape, all dominated by gigantic portraits of Winston, Randolph and Sarah. It must have taken all designer Peter King’s experience and expertise to contrive a set that would be as effective on the Fortune’s stage as on that of the Court Theatre, which is twice the width.
We are immediately hit by a barrage of stunning sound and lighting effects (designed by Giles Tanner and Sean Hawkins respectively) evoking the Battle of Britain with the BBC broadcasting rousing patriotic music and Churchill’s famous speeches.
The play however is set not in the period of Winston’s power and glory, but in his declining years, in 1962, on his eighty-eighth birthday. The lights go up to reveal spoilt son Randolph, so obnoxious he cannot retain staff, who has achieved little in his life, but is immensely gratified that he has finally been permitted to write Winston’s biography. Determined to tax his father with the wrongs he feels have been done him in the past, he has invited his parents to a birthday dinner. This will be gate-crashed by disgraceful sister Sarah, alcoholic and wanton, but her father’s favourite. Also present as witness and catalyst is Dr Jenkins, the young historian Randolph has bullied into carrying out the duties of manservant for the occasion.
The actors bring the glowing assurance of a successful three weeks’ run to their roles, each inhabiting his or her part to perfection. The iconic role of Winston is a tour de force for Geoffrey Heath. He has performed at the Fortune before, but has never impressed me more. Heath’s presence and mannerisms are uncannily like Churchill’s, yet he is also every dignified old person I have ever known facing the indignities of age. His attempts at retaining some control are wily and true to life, and the moment when he succeeds in standing, in order to take responsibility for his actions, is moving.
Yvonne Martin is similarly convincing as Lady Churchill – Clemmy to the husband she loves and rules autocratically – who has decided to treat the gathering as a chance for healing. Flawlessly groomed with immaculately styled grey hair (all right, an extremely expensive wig), Martin subtly reveals Clementine’s emotional depths, and delivers some of Baker’s best lines with a calm ladylike complacency that almost robs them of their sting.
Roy Snow successfully makes of Randolph an extremely arrogant and annoying man whom it is a positive pleasure for us to dislike, secure in the knowledge that his type is doomed, that the generation of Jenkins is now in the ascendancy. Snow adopts a wonderfully self-important stance and oratorical style of speaking, while just below the surface lurks the insecurity of the child desperately seeking parental approval.
Sarah arrives like a whirlwind, singing ‘Happy Birthday’, just when an injection of energy is needed. Hilary Halba is fabulous in this gift of a part, flinging herself dramatically round the room as she plots to drop her bombshell, and discovering myriad ways to seat herself. One moment she is kneeling submissively by her father’s wheelchair, the next she’s upside down with bare feet twirling cheekily in the air. Halba charms us whether singing snatches of the Beatles’ latest or tipsily flirting with an alarmed Jenkins.
Young Dr Stephen Jenkins, the historian who puts up with Randolph’s condescension only because he is so eager to meet Churchill, is an imagined character, which allows Baker to explore issues like class as well as consider how future generations will regard the heroes of the past. In the role, a strong Northern accent marking him as an outsider, Jonathan Martin is engagingly dogged, determined not to allow Randolph to side-line him. He makes the most of the sensitive scene in which Jenkins coaxes Churchill to confide in him and the two find they have something in common after all.
The structure of the play is exemplary, each climax arising apparently naturally. The dialogue crackles and the pace, thanks in part to Macgregor and Karunaharan, never flags. Baker’s use of language is masterly, some of his acerbic aphorisms as witty as Oscar Wilde’s. Every character has their own well-timed moment of bitter self-revelation, their cathartic emotional explosion. Consequently the audience is totally absorbed in a family crisis we can all relate to.
Churchill himself said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” My guest, who has worked extensively with dysfunctional families, points out that today we are far more aware of the consequences of poor parenting, but for the Churchills, there are hard lessons to learn. Will they manage to listen to each other’s truth as well as speaking their own?
“A great man,” repeats Randolph as the lights fade, “but not perfect.” Good. Perfect would make for very boring theatre. Neither venerated nor reviled, then, just made fully and convincingly human. Now that’s a real achievement, and it’s what makes Winston’s Birthday such stimulating and satisfying theatre.
*It has been The Marquess of Toodle-oo as well as Meet The Churchills.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Truths emerge from sniping and witty repartee
Review by Lindsay Clark 07th Feb 2016
Dramatised historical figures, even exceptionally well documented ones such as the Churchill family, walk a fine line between fact and fiction. On one hand, the selected historical references have to engage and satisfy an audience, while on the other hand, imagined material must be compatible and plausible at the same time as it entertains.
An underlying theme about ‘history as mythology’ and the slippery nature of truth can be gleaned from this fictional account of an imagined Churchill family gathering. All sorts of secrets and personal perspectives are uncovered in Lara Macgregor’s direction of Paul Baker’s exploration of a luncheon to celebrate Winston’s eighty eighth birthday.
The play brings together four members of the famous family in a well-crafted attempt to expose their dysfunctional relationships, including long standing grievances. Somewhat more ordinary, but providing a valuable device for probing Winston’s own uncomfortable war time memories, is a fifth character: a recently graduated historian who has come to help research Randolph Churchill’s biography of his father.
Young Dr Jenkins, graduate of Liverpool University, has already studied available material on Churchill, but such is the rudeness and outrageous self-assurance of Randolph that he is about to walk away from the job when the famous man arrives, with Clementine, his wife, guiding the wheel chair and doing all the talking. Winston is biding his time and not in the mood for jollity.
Before long, their flamboyant drama queen daughter Sarah makes a grand and unanticipated entrance into a scene already tense. So far so good. Five interesting characters introduced, each with something to convey and perhaps resolve as luncheon is announced by Jenkins, who has reluctantly assumed the role of Randolph’s manservant. His opportunist interviews with Churchill when others are off stage and his growing assertiveness, faced with the often mindless privilege of the family, provide a sense that the play is going somewhere beyond sniping and repartee.
This is all the more necessary as the spats over this or that ‘secret’ or grievance are in danger of becoming repetitive, though rescued by strong performances and witty dialogue. Gradually, acceptance and understanding are achieved, including Jenkins’ role in delivering some clear sighted truths in the biography to come.
For me, the production lacks momentum at times, perhaps because it deals so much with things recalled rather than things happening. That said, the cast, especially Geoffrey Heath as Sir Winston Churchill, do a fine job of establishing forceful characters.
Winston flickers from irascible terseness to statesmanlike reflection and eventual penitence as a father in a finely controlled performance. Yvonne Martin has all her accustomed assurance and skill in bringing his peacemaker wife Clementine to life, scoring a high moment when her patience and devotion are tested beyond bearing.
As Randolph, the unspeakably abrasive son whose multiple careers have still left him short of fulfilment, Roy Snow provides a clear portrait, and Hilary Halba’s Sarah adds a convincingly contrived actress/socialite to the scene.
Jonathan Martin as Dr Stephen Jenkins is a touchstone for some sort of normality among this eccentric lot, building steadily to some new authority as a biographer in the final moments.
Support for all this in the way of design is an important aspect of the verisimilitude we are asked to accept. Collaboration between Fortune and The Court draws on talent and skill from both theatres. Set design from Peter King, lighting and sound from Sean Hawkins and Giles Tanner respectively, and costume from Deborah Moore, ensure that we feel we are looking through the fourth wall on a real event.
Ultimately we are left with the feeling that what happens in the small world of families is at least as important as whatever can be achieved on the national scene, but the truth of what happens in either is not always as it seems.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer