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Happy Warriors review at Upstairs at the Gatehouse – ‘a witty and intelligent debut’

Simon Pontin and Neil Chinneck in Happy Warriors at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London. Photo: Mitzi de Margary
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Towards the end of the Second World War, the communist resistance in Yugoslavia were beginning to liberate pockets of the country. Any advance against Germany was rare, so the British Prime Minister took a personal interest in the Partisans, commissioning his son Randolph Churchill to head-up aid to Marshall Tito and his allies.

It wasn’t long before the Randolph was belly-aching for companions of his own social and intellectual standing until eventually Captain Evelyn Waugh agreed to join him.

It’s an intriguing starting point for a debut play, but from this nugget of wartime history author James Hugh Macdonald fashions a quick-witted, intelligent comedy that pokes fun at the privilege and priorities of the officer class.

Holed up in a barren farmhouse, with only a belligerent Slavic cook for company, Waugh and Churchill bicker endlessly about religion, politics and alcohol. It’s a fascinating dynamic, astutely exploited by Macdonald, culminating in a battle of wills that’s both sharp and sophisticated.

Simon Pontin plays Churchill as a remarkably familiar political buffoon, manipulating the rules to suit his own ends. Neil Chinneck’s Waugh is an intellectual too but less adroit at politics and absorbed by his own spiritual conflict. Fortunately Zora the cook, played with zeal by Martha Dancy, is more than simply a comic device, though the importance of her role lessens slightly as the play unfolds.

While some aspects of Andrew C Wadsworth’s production may lack finesse and Sorcha Corcoran’s set design is flimsy, it picks up the tone and tempo of the writing perfectly.

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Witty, intelligent and authoritative debut play undermined by a fairly pedestrian staging