Plano — For Texas thespians, the name Paul Baker is associated with one person—the founder of the Dallas Theater Center, theatre professor at Baylor University and first principal of Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. In actuality, there is another Paul Baker of theatre, a British dramatist and historian. He mixes both professions through his playwriting about historical figures and events. Theatre Britain presents the American premiere of his most recent play, Winston’s Birthday (formerly Meet the Churchills) at the Cox Playhouse in the Courtyard Theatre in Plano.
It is the final straight play for Theatre Britain, which after its annual holiday panto in December will fold as founder Sue Birch and her husband move back to England.
Sue Birch directs the cast as they grapple with the dysfunctionality of the Churchill family on this November afternoon in 1962. The story, a fictionalized event, reflects each character with historical accuracy.
Randolph Churchill (Brian Hoffman) has invited his father, Sir Winston Churchill (Jackie L. Kemp) and mother, Lady Clementine Churchill (Allyn Carrell) to a luncheon at his home to celebrate Sir Churchill’s 88th birthday. Randolph and his father have been at odds for a while and it is Randolph’s hope that they can resolve their issues during the luncheon. Randolph desperately needs to understand why his father withheld important information from him about a past relationship. Hoffman introduces Randolph as a boorish self-centered member of the aristocracy who had difficulty keeping staff. The character moves from that position to anxiousness to frustration, transitions that Hoffman executes with clarity.
Randolph’s new research assistant, historian Dr. Stephen Jenkins (Michael Speck) is excited about the possibility of talking with Sir Churchill. He is working on a biography of the statesman. In hopes of getting a chance to interview Sir Churchill, Jenkins is willing to lower himself into service for Randolph on the day of the luncheon.
Sir Churchill’s daughter, Sarah (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) arrives unexpectedly, annoying Randolph who wanted their father to himself. Their father had always doted on Sarah, willing to tolerate her penchant for getting into precarious relationships with unusual men. Sarah was the most interesting character to watch in the story, resulting in part from Mary-Margaret Pyeatt’s striking performance. From the moment she enters the stage it is hard not to watch her.
Lady Churchill is the fulcrum of the family in this story, calming Sir Churchill’s surliness and corralling her children’s behavior for this single family activity. Carrell commands attention as Lady Clementine with authenticity, bringing her poise and acerbic humor to the center.
At this time in Sir Churchill’s life he spends much of his time in a wheelchair. Kemp’s movements are restricted to that position. His performance is uneven—perhaps the awkward pauses and stumbles at Sunday’s matinee were intentional readings of the character but it seemed that Kemp struggled a bit here and there to find his footing as Sir Churchill.
Dr. Jenkins was, as the playwright explains in his note to the audience, a symbol of the new meritocratic country that was slowly replacing the world the Churchills had known so well. Speck gives Jenkins more personality than the script provides. That character has some of the funnier lines in the story, which helps.
Darryl P. Clement’s set design is carefully detailed and smartly arranged. This makes it possible for Birch to position the actors in a variety of patterns without awkwardness.
Winston’s Birthday starts slowly but builds toward a lively display of familial dysfunctional behavior that is entertaining in a gossipy way.