When Winston Went to War with the Wireless Reviews

Reviews are coming in for Jack Thorne’s new play When Winston Went to War with the Wireless at the Donmar Warehouse.

Jack Thorne’s (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) new play is directed by Katy Rudd, and stars Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill and Stephen Campbell Moore as John Reith.

The cast also includes Haydn Gwynne as Stanley Baldwin; Kitty Archer as Isabel Shields; Ravin J Ganatra as Archbishop of Canterbury / JCC Davidson; Mariam Haque as Muriel Reith; Kevin McMonagle as Ernest Bevin; Luke Newberry as Charlie Bowser; Seb Philpott as Speaker of the House/Musician; Elliott Rennie as Arthur Pugh/Musician; Laura Rogers as Clemmie Churchill/Amelia Johnson; and Shubham Saraf as Peter Eckersley.

The creative team also includes design by Laura Hopkins, sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, lighting design by Howard Hudson, movement direction by Scott Graham, music by Gary Yershon, video design and animation by Andrzej Goulding and casting by Anna Cooper CDG.

When Winston Went to War with the Wireless is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 29 July 2023.

Read reviews from The Times, Telegraph, i News, the Evening Standard and more, with further reviews to follow.

More about When Winston Went to War with the Wireless tickets at the Donmar Warehouse

When Winston Went To War With The Wireless reviews

The Times

"Utterly compelling"

"Suitably enough for a work about the early days of the BBC, parts of Jack Thorne’s drama, set during the General Strike, have the air of a rattling good radio play. Voices swoop from all directions and actors doubling as Foley technicians provide ingenious sound effects."

"Adrian Scarborough’s Winston Churchill offers a mixture of bluster, righteous passion and self-mocking humour, while Stephen Campbell Moore is utterly compelling as John Reith, the autocrat who formed the BBC in his own austere image."

"The contest between the two men provides the central theme of a piece, vivaciously directed by Katy Rudd, which combines social history with slivers of the more populist programming which Reith and his colleagues oversaw as their organisation, then known as the British Broadcasting Company, began to build its empire."

"If Thorne’s script has a flaw, it’s that most of the characters remain cheerfully two-dimensional. Not Reith, though."

Clive Davis, The Times
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The Evening Standard

"History repeats itself"

"The feud between Conservative politicians and our national broadcaster is almost as old as the BBC itself, as Jack Thorne’s wily new play reminds us."

"... Thorne also fascinatingly explores deeper questions of personal morality and hubris within two deeply arrogant men. The script teems with detail. Katy Rudd’s production felt slightly undercooked on opening night, but nevertheless glows with affection for the idea and the ideals of early radio. The live performance of sound effects is a highlight, and the juxtaposition of dated music-hall frivolity and earnest debate (including Woman’s Hour and gardening programmes) echoes the Radio 4 schedules today."

"Alongside acute sideswipes at police violence, the restriction of the right to strike or protest, and Tory infighting, Thorne has tremendous, debunking fun with his main characters."

"At times the contemporary resonances feel strained or even careless: did anyone refer to a song as an “earworm” in 1926? But overall this is a fascinating reminder of how history repeats itself, usually as comedy."

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard
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The Telegraph

"A joyful celebration of the BBC – with a crucial question unasked"

"Set in 1926, with general strike looming, Jack Thorne’s new play vividly evokes the Corporation's giddy early days but is far from perfect"

"In his vision, the past doesn’t so much hold a mirror up to the present as plagiarise it."

"The play’s title teases that Thorne, who wrote The Motive and the Cue and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is interested in the mano-a-mano encounter between Reith and Churchill. In fact, it’s more a character study in how Reith, the son of a Presbyterian minister, tried to balance his professional ambition with his conscience and sympathy for the strikers."

"Yet something feels under-powered about this central conflict. There’s a lot of shouting – and Adrian Scarborough’s Churchill doesn’t help things. He gets a few nice laughs, but Churchill here is a caricature. There’s also an awful lot of history to crunch through: characters lob gobbets about Gallipoli and the Gold Standard at each other like hand grenades."

Alex Diggins, The Telegraph
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i News

"Unsubtle government vs the BBC drama"

"Stephen Campbell Moore and Adrian Scarborough are terrific in Jack Thorne’s clever but heavy-handed story of our national broadcaster’s earliest days"

"Fascinating as this roiling moment of history is, Thorne thumps home the modern-day parallels in rather too heavy-handed a fashion."

"Campbell Moore and Scarborough, two of our finest stage actors, are perfectly paired, the former sternness flecked with passion and the latter a figure of volcanic ebullience with half an eye constantly on his carefully curated larger than life public persona. Remind you of anyone? There’s lovely support from Haydn Gwynne as Prime Minister Stanley “Safety First” Baldwin, attempting to prevent both the country and Churchill from derailing. An intriguing if unsubtle evening’s theatre."

Fiona Mountford, i News
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The Guardian

"Radio is the star of BBC crisis drama"

"Jack Thorne’s dramatisation of the power play between the UK government and the broadcaster in 1920s Britain is pacy and evocative"

If Reithian principles represent the ideal of truth-telling and impartiality in public service broadcasting today, Jack Thorne’s play looks back at the man who established them at a delicate moment in the history of the BBC, and dramatises his inner tussle with truth."

"The story comes in fast, evocative scenes with dialogue delivering lots of information, entertainingly, but not with enough probing."

"In a subplot, we see how Reith is quietly tormented by the memory of his homosexual lover, Charlie (Luke Newberry). There is connective tissue between Reith’s central battle for truth and his marriage to Muriel (Mariam Haque), built on lies. But the nature of the lie is entirely different and the subplot threatens to take over: Muriel is sketchily drawn but Reith’s flashbacks to Charlie bring the play alive and we want more of their story."

"Under the direction of Katy Rudd, the stagecraft dazzles, most ingeniously through Ben and Max Ringham’s foley effects."

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian
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The Stage

"Colourful performances from Campbell Moore and Scarborough"

"Drama about the fight for BBC impartiality educates and entertains, but doesn’t quite come to life"

"In Katy Rudd’s lively production, with colourful performances from Stephen Campbell Moore as an arid, repressed Reith and Adrian Scarborough as Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, it certainly adheres to Reith’s famous BBC tenet, “inform, educate and entertain”. Where it doesn’t always succeed is in doing all three of those at once: it is packed with information, but lacks the humanity of Thorne’s best work."

"All his characters here, in fact, are broad and flat, and although there are flashes of strobe-lit police violence and confrontation with strikers, the texture of interwar life is not pungent enough. Still, it is a piece full of interest; the sort of play, in fact, that would sound at home on Radio 4."

Sam Marlowe, The Stage
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The Observer

"A 1920s battle for the soul of BBC radio couldn’t be more timely"

"The craggy and godly Reith is shown, in a gently revealing performance by Stephen Campbell Moore, as riven by his love for a young man. Adrian Scarborough’s Churchill is bristling, babyishly self-obsessed. No one merely impersonates, but there is wry evocation: Haydn Gwynne is a strikingly savvy Baldwin."

"There is, though, another story beyond the script: the story of why radio particularly matters. This, beautifully rendered, is the most striking aspect of Katy Rudd’s production."

Susannah Clapp, The Observer
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The Sunday Times

"A timely production"

"A play about John Reith in the 1920s has gripping resonance."

"Jack Thorne’s play is reasonably interesting about the pressures Reith endured during the 1926 strike."

"The play was presumably scheduled when catastrophists were predicting that Boris Johnson’s government was going to demolish the BBC. Instead the BBC demolished Boris!"

"Katy Rudd’s production lurches from fair to ropey. Some of the acting is distinctly subpar."

"The show’s predictable political slant did not annoy me as much as Campbell Moore’s depiction of Reith. It was probably too much to hope for an actor tall enough to capture his stature, but the man suggested here, fraught with regrets about the end of his gay affair and blubbing on the floor, seems a long way from the didactic Presbyterian whose bushy eyebrows can still be seen doing acrobatics in John Freeman’s 1960 Face to Face interview."

Quentin Letts, The Sunday Times
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"Jack Thorne’s Churchill versus the BBC drama is fascinating but never really knows what it wants to be"

"Jack Thorne has to be one of the most versatile writers out there, a dab hand at everything from wild fantasy (‘His Dark Materials’, ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, ‘Let the Right One In’) to gritty realism (‘Help’, ‘The End of History’). He’s Jack of all trades, in other words. But he’s not infallible, and this historical drama never quite manages to live up to its intriguing concept."

"t’s a fascinating window into now little-remembered events, and Katy Rudd’s zippy production feels the most at ease while depicting the dawn of the BBC... Unfortunately there are so many interesting things to talk about that Thorne seems to get distracted and never talks about any of them for long enough."

"... even if the endlessly watchable Campbell Moore is undoubtedly the main character, it’s not really a play about Reith, but rather the historical events he was caught up in – the raking over of his love life feels like it probably belongs in a different drama."

"Basically there are ideas for four or five good plays here, and Thorne probably shouldn’t have tried to write them all at the same time – ultimately ‘When Winston Went to War with the Wireless’ is an entertaining but flawed exercise in cakeism."

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut
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The Independent

"This is a pacey play with powerhouse performances and a slick production."

"The leads are well supported by a multitalented ensemble cast, who also create the show’s auditory world. This comes down to the ingenious sound design of Ben and Max Ringham, who create a soundscape of Foley artistry (the technique used to create sound effects for radio)."

"Sound is the thread that links Thorne’s play together, even in moments of silence."

"At times, incorporating so many design elements can leave the supporting characters feeling a little thin, with cameo roles given the same depth as political leaders. Still, it doesn’t diminish Rudd’s production, the power of which reverberates around the Donmar Warehouse like an echo."

Isobel Lewis, The Independent
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📷 Main photo: WHEN WINSTON WENT TO WAR WITH THE WIRELESS in Adrian Scarborough and Stephen Campbell Moore - Donmar. Photo by Manuel Harlan

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