Review by Kathleen Campion
Winston Churchill was a remarkably quotable man—perhaps an excessively quoted man. He had his hands on various levers of power throughout much of the 20th century. He had a lot to say, and, as he lived a long time (90 years), he had the time to say it.
Which brings us to CHURCHILL, a one man show at New World Stages, and to a mystery. Why would Ronald Keaton, – the ambitious gentleman who both wrote and has the misguided courage to go on stage, alone, to perform it—why would he choose the most pedestrian of the available material, the “Cliff Notes” version, if you will, of the Churchillian oeuvre?
Most of us know Churchill thought democracy the worst of choices except for all the others. So why does Keaton opt for such shopworn references? My guess is that the actor overruled the writer and decided to cover all the bases, to make sure the audience had comfortable reference points—comfort at the price of tedium. So, Churchill might have been a home run but settles in as a sacrifice fly.
Writers are urged to consider the target audience. So, unless Churchill is aimed at Trobriand Islanders, one wonders why Keaton wishes to condescend quite so much. Actually, a New York, off-Broadway theater audience is likely to understand what Sandhurst is (“…it’s very like your …um…West Point…hum?”). And we actually get that the drink we call “scotch” the Brits call “whiskey.” We also know that no British PM—past or present or dead —would be seen in such a suit! This Winnie was dressed more like Khrushchev than Churchill.
A one man show, even with compelling material, can be part theater, part triathlon, part self flagellation. Whatever else it may be, it is certainly hard work. And Keaton works hard. He told the Wall Street Journal this week that he wrote the piece because as an “older character actor sometimes you have to create your own opportunity.” Admirable to be sure, but, regrettably, it isn’t fun to watch.
As dull as the material on stage was, some in the audience were entertaining and annoying all at once. They couldn’t help themselves, as they finished the Churchillian phrases, not quite under their breath. (This happened a lot—sorry—during Spamalot’s Broadway run, when Python followers were equally compelled to rehearse the lines with the players.)
At the close of Churchill, as I escaped up the aisle, I was surprised to see five or six people standing to applaud. I can only conclude they had slipped down a rabbit hole and into the delusion that this actually was Winston Churchill and no matter how uninspired the performance, he deserved an ovation for other wartime accomplishments.
Winston Churchill is enjoying something of a vogue at the moment as various organizations recognize, or attempt to capitalize on, this, the 50th anniversary of his death. You will be seeing and hearing a lot about the British bulldog. The effort at New World Stages feels like an opportunity missed.
Churchill – Adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton; directed by Kurt Johns.
Lighting and scenic design by Jason Epperson; projection design by Paul Deziel; sound design by Eric Backus. At New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street through May 31st.
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.