THEATRE: Being beastly to the Germans

Peace in Our Time Richmond Theatre
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During the interval of Peace in Our Time at the Richmond Theatre, I bumped into Sheridan Morley, Nol Coward's godson, biographer, editor of the diaries and a man who seems to have got almost as much mileage out of Coward as Coward did.

He revealed that this 1947 play, in which the Master imagined a Nazi occupied Britain, was the one Coward work he had never up until now encountered in a theatre. And that gives you the measure of the enterprise and boldness of the Touring Partnership's achievement in staging a play that is not only a fascinating curiosity but one that requires an expensively large cast.

Set in the saloon bar of a London pub, called (with arm-twisting coyness) The Shy Gazelle, Peace in Our Time is Coward in his This Happy Breed mode, extolling the virtues of lower-middle-class English integrity. It's the salt-of-the-earth pub-running Shattock family whose children bravely devote themselves to perilous Resistance work and remain silent under torture. It's the affected chattering classes who become collaborators.

Presented as a precious, selfseeking bitch, Chorley Bannister (Jeremy Clyde), the editor of Forethought, is seen oiling up to a German director and rhapsodising over his Covent Garden Rosenkavalier. This prompts a tart response from one of the female customers who sarcastically proclaims that the rise in the level of Kultur has made the grateful Brits glad to have been invaded. "`Thank God', we said to ourselves, `at last we shall really be able to understand opera'." The similarities between Nol Coward and George Orwell are not numerous but they were certainly at one in the belief that it would be the intellectuals of this country who'd be the first to capitulate to an occupying power.

Irony is portrayed as a "secret weapon" of the English. Janet Braid, a sharp-minded, good-hearted regular played most attractively by Angela Down, tells Rob Edwards's SS officer that "laced with humour and hatred, it can sometimes be very effective". Not that in wartime their sense of irony never fails the Brits, as Coward had cause to recognise in 1943 when his patriotic, archly disingenuous song "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans" was initially blocked by the censor on the grounds that there were lines in it that Goebbels could twist.

The play is enveloped by a further irony in that it's a hymn to Britain written at a time when, as we know from the diaries, Coward thought the country was going to the dogs, a decline begun at Munich and resumed when Churchill was rejected by the electorate. You can sense that dislike in a speech where one of the women refers to the class wars and political squabbling that would have divided the country, had we won the Battle of Britain.

If Wyn Jones's characterful, skilfully orchestrated production doesn't persuade you that this is a particularly good play, it grips you throughout and establishes Peace in Our Time as a highly intriguing phenomenon. "Shakespeare was second to none in commercialising patriotism," one of the characters says, but that's just Coward being falsely modest.

n Richmond box-office: 0181-940 0088 (ends tonight). At Cardiff New Theatre (01222-394 844), March 21-25

Paul Taylor