One Night In November, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

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The Independent Culture

The attack was so successful that Goebbels, Hitler's minister for propaganda, coined a new word, "koventriert", meaning "utterly destroyed". He was referring to the aerial bombardment of Coventry on the night of 14 November 1940. This raid and the political controversy surrounding it now form the subject of Alan Pollock's flawed but stirring play.

There has long been the suspicion that Churchill knew in advance that Coventry was the target and sacrificed the city; moves to protect its citizens might have alerted Hitler to the work done on decrypting the German Enigma codes.

Pollock approaches the topic via a wartime romance. In Brief Encounter fashion, love is awakened amid gusts of steam on a railway platform. The dashing, Jewish Michael (Daniel Brocklebank), an erstwhile literature don, is now part of the code-cracking team at Bletchley Park. Katie (captivatingly portrayed by Joanna Christie) is a clerk who yearns to be a teacher. He cannot disclose what he knows, nor (without committing treason) can he forewarn Katie and family, who are preparing for her birthday party in Coventry on the fatal night.

A better play would have counterpointed Michael's agonising moral dilemma with the questions allegedly confronting Churchill. But the hero's descent into guilt-ridden madness isn't matched by any compelling investigation of the actions and motives of the prime minister. In lieu of an appearance by the latter, there are flashes forward to a post-war encounter between Katie and Churchill's elderly aide, whose contributions designedly fail to clarify the issues.

Often irritatingly bitty, One Night in November is powerfully staged by Hamish Glen in a manner that intensifies Pollock's vivid depiction of the bombing, the self-righteousness of authority, and the looting and rape the play refuses to airbrush from the record. The production features stunning pyrotechnics (Patrick Connellan, John Scott and Arnim Friess excel in, respectively, design, sound and lighting).

At the performance I saw, the simulated bombing set off the theatre's fire alarms and the building was evacuated. Despite further delays adding an hour to the running time, the audience stayed – a tribute to the grip exerted by this drama.

To 29 March (024-7655 3055)