Park Theatre 23 February – 19 March. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Telling the story of the relationship between Phillippe Petain and Charles de Gaulle in 2 hours is a challenge, but Jonathan Lynn has managed it brilliantly.
Sitting in his prison cell awaiting the jury’s verdict, Petain reminisces about his first meeting with de Gaulle before the great war, followed by the pivotal moments in their army and political careers that led to Petain being on trial for treason as a Nazi collaborator. Contradictory remarks from de Gaulle help to balance the narration and highlight the touching relationship between the men, as well as their ridiculous pomposity. Both men were self-important and unyielding in their beliefs, and when Petain believed he could be “the saviour of France” for a third time by signing an armistice with Hitler, his pragmatic view was too much for the idealistic de Gaulle to bear, with both men considering each other to be a traitor to France.
There is a lot of historical fact thrown rapidly at the audience and there is not much action, but the writing is so precise and witty, and the performances so entrancing, that the time flew by.
Tom Conti is remarkable as Petain, with little physical nuances signalling his ageing throughout the play, and some gentle moments when you aren’t quite sure if Petain is fully lucid. Conti effortlessly shows Petain’s flaws and the steeliness under the seemingly straightforward and compassionate image he showed his men. The scenes where he describes the bloodshed and losses in battles are outstanding and deeply moving.
Laurence Fox plays de Gaulle like an Anglo-French version of Sheldon Cooper, which works remarkably well. He is delightfully awkward and portrays de Gaulle’s social discomfort and unbelievable arrogance with great comic effect. The two actors appear at first like the classic comedy double act – one stiff and spiky, and one cuddly and bumbling, but add more and more layers to their characters throughout the play ensuring that the audience can empathise with each man. Their drunken scene is a delight, and because of the clever writing building up the audience’s investment in their friendship, the fracturing of that relationship, even though we know it’s coming, has a lot more impact.
With ideas about the meaning of nation, and keeping status and power in Europe and the wider world, this play is a timely reminder that nothing is ever new in politics. A wonderful, bitter-sweet story, expertly written and performed, and very funny.