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Theatre review: When Winston Went to War with the Wireless by Jack Thorne

23 June 2023

Simon Walsh enjoys a topical play about the 1926 General Strike

Manuel Harlan

Adrian Scarborough and Stephen Campbell Moore as Winston Churchill and John Reith at the Donmar Theatre

Adrian Scarborough and Stephen Campbell Moore as Winston Churchill and John Reith at the Donmar Theatre

IT IS rare to find a play in which the pivotal plot point is a decision to censor the Archbishop of Canterbury. But this is a BBC fighting for its survival against political interference, and a high-profile broadcaster in love with a younger man.

Jack Thorne’s topical new play, When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, is set during the 1926 General Strike, when the country is at a standstill. Churchill — not the heroic wartime Coalition leader, but a politicised and brutal bully, in Adrian Scarborough’s portrayal — is editing the British Gazette as little more than government propaganda in the absence of newspapers. But there is the radio, which he does not control, and John Reith, who is trying to establish his British Broadcasting Company and achieve charter status. Everything is deadlock, which the Archbishop (Randall Davidson, benignly played by Ravin J. Ganatra) seeks to break. Stanley Baldwin (a forceful Haydn Gwynne) is commandingly keen to avoid this intervention and keep the government unassailed.

Manuel HarlanRavin J. Ganatra as Randall Davidson in When Winston Went to War with the Wireless

That is the top line. Then there is Reith growing into his BBC post and his purpose to “educate, inform, entertain” and make some sense of what is going on. His Christianity informs this (“Protect the sabbath”), but convolutes his private life. He loved another man, who keeps popping up in flashbacks, but is married to Muriel (Mariam Haque), whom the young man, Charlie (Luke Newberry), planned to marry before Reith stole the march. The inner turmoil remains and fuels his angst over which paths to take in his personal and professional lives. The balance is costly. Stephen Campbell Moore’s Reith is a defining, polychromatic performance, whose passions fluctuate with his Aberdonian burr.

The back wall of the simple set is a sound stage that the multidisciplinary cast ascend and descend to create audible radio effects — crunching gravel, snapping celery, scraping a shovel — besides playing instruments for a low-key soundtrack and accompanying various songs and skits that serve as radio sketches to link the serious scenes. Actors double up: Laura Rogers is marvellously cut-glass as the newsreader Amelia Johnson one moment and Clemmie Churchill the next. Seb Philpott and Elliott Rennie keep the live soundtrack coming in between bouts as politicians and BBC engineers.

The craft of radio is in sharp focus. Conversations between Reith and his assistant Isabel Shields (Kitty Archer) and the harried Muriel touch on what people like, listen to, and see the potential for, alongside its intimacy and what it reveals about the speaker (“Sound unlocks feeling”). That vulnerable honesty brings conflicted Reith out of the shadows in a dramatic stand-off with the Government and himself. In his touching scene with the Archbishop, Reith insists that he cannot broadcast the archiepiscopal speech, but also questions the decision. The scene holds the Collect for Purity at its centre, which they say together in prayer: two men knowing that they have impossible jobs in difficult times. Davidson rallies Reith to leadership; the rest is up to the Almighty.

Katy Rudd’s direction holds pace and pathos, finding contemporary echoes in Thorne’s accomplished script. It is an impressive ensemble piece both on- and offstage; so Ben and Max Ringham’s sound, Gary Yershon’s score, and Howard Hudson’s lighting all work harmoniously in Laura Hopkins’s design, complete with 1920s pin-smart costumes. It’s also a treat for the ears and could work well on the radio. Lord Reith himself would, no doubt, approve of that.


When Winston went to War with the Wireless is at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2, until 29 July. Bookings: phone 020 3282 3808. donmarwarehouse.com

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