Noël Coward’s 1947 play Peace in Our Time opens with the BBC informing the public that the Nazis have won the Battle of Britain and Britain is now a vassal state. No wonder it was the biggest flop of Coward’s career – it must have been the last thing audiences wanted in the raw post-war years.
Phil Willmott’s gripping and filmic production reveals a fascinating alternative history. The comment about Churchill’s fate still elicits a collective gasp. It’s completely unlike Coward’s typically arch and farcical style and feels closer in tone to Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and the novels of Patrick Hamilton.
A cross-section of Londoners gather in a pub near Sloane Square. Willmott draws sharply individualised performances out of the splendid 18-strong ensemble led by Patrick Bailey and Virge Gilchrist as the mild-mannered proprietors who would really rather keep a low profile but find themselves drawn into the resistance. With so much going on, not all the plot strands seem fully thought through but the many shifts in perspective are spryly handled.
The state of limbo is invoked by muted candlelight and sombre costumes. All the action takes place around two bars, surrounded by a portrait of Churchill and other London paraphernalia thrown away in the trash.
A devoted patriot, Coward must have known that this play wouldn’t be popular but felt compelled to demonstrate his belief that British fortitude would have prevailed in such circumstances. Seventy-five years after VE Day, it’s both a curiosity and a revelation that shows Coward had more than “just a talent to amuse”.