Historyonics Theatre Company's newest presentation, The British Lion: Winston Churchill's Legacy -- which continues through Nov. 21 at the Missouri Historical Society -- isn't about Winston Churchill's legacy at all: It's about Churchill himself, and this casual sloppiness of language is an emblem of the sloppiness throughout the production itself. The book, as it were, is shallow and misleading. The cast is obviously under-rehearsed. The music is sparse, unimaginative and often a hindrance to actors and audience. Those who know something about Churchill will be bored; those who do not will be minimally informed and marginally misled.
Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) was (as writer Caitlin McQuade never makes clear) an aristocrat. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, one of the most important politicians of his day, and his mother, an American heiress, treated him with what would be regarded today as great cruelty. Lord Randolph died mad -- of tertiary syphilis, it is said -- leaving behind a son who needed the center of Britain's political stage to feel he was worth anything. An apparently happy marriage, McQuade asserts, accounted for his political success, but this 1940s Hollywood notion of biography really misses points, many of them more dramatic, that a better-informed researcher and dramatist would have found and utilized.
The British Lion reveals nothing of Churchill's complexity but relies almost exclusively on his marriage to form the structure of the piece. McQuade uses letters between husband and wife that (as articulated by Christopher Limber as Churchill and Susie Wall as Clementine, his wife) seem to have been written for eventual publication. Bits and pieces from a variety of the less interesting British politicians also appear, but nowhere (at least attributed) are the words of people like Anthony Eden, Joseph Chamberlain (instead of boring Neville) or Lloyd George, to say nothing of the royals. Edward VII had lots to say about young Winston, as did his successors as Churchill aged. In short, the piece performs on the level of a competent but unimaginative sophomore research essay whose thesis is that the love of a good woman makes great men great -- hardly enough to keep the mind alive.
The five actors, all members of Actors' Equity Association, are people one usually looks forward to seeing, especially when cast to their strengths. Wall, for instance, is a comedienne well known for riding the top without going over it, and Limber is also at his best as a comedian. As the Churchills, however, they come off uncomfortably like soap actors -- Limber especially, never suggesting the cool elegance of aristocracy. James Anthony and Judi Mann -- both too seldom seen on St. Louis stages -- could have caught the Churchills' station, but instead play middle-, lower-middle- and working-class characters right up the alleys of Limber and Wall. Ted Cancila rushes about being alarmed (which he does quite well), but he can do other things, too.
The triviality of The British Lion: Winston Churchill's Legacy is unfortunate and exasperating. Considering the collective intelligence and education of Historyonics Theatre Company's audiences, the triviality is dangerous as well, and I hope that upcoming productions will offer more substance and challenge.