The figure of Winston Churchill looms large in the Western imagination—both in positive and negative ways. He is both the man who saved Britain during its darkest hour and a confrontational figure of world history—the man who defeated the Nazis and a controversial figure of scorn that latter-day historians enjoy righteously taking down as an imperialist, alleged racist, and enactor of repressive policies against India, Ireland, and Wales.
Regardless, Churchill’s figure remains strong. He was one of the most powerful and influential leaders of the 20th century, a master orator, and a figure worthy of admiration. In just the past few years, several entertainment projects have explored his life, including the 2017 film The Darkest Hour and Netflix’s The Crown.
The newest production that has emerged exploring the life of Churchill is a modest but popular one-man-play that is set to open this weekend in Nashville, created by a British actor who has spent the past two decades bringing famous figures in British history to life for the stage.
David Payne, the aforementioned one-man-player, became one of my favorite actors when I had the opportunity to see his critically acclaimed and popular stage play An Evening With C.S. Lewis on Halloween 2019. It was a quiet performance due to the holiday, with few attendees at a small uptown performance venue. But his one-man-show left few dry eyes as his wit and sadness threaded through the life of the prominent evangelist as he relayed the difficulties and tragedies that befell him throughout his life—World War I, losing mother and spouse to cancer, etc.
Payne’s current career trajectory arguably began in Nashville. In the 1990s, he was asked to oversee an English record label’s work in the U.S. and visited Music City for the first time. While abroad, he saw a production of the popular stage play Shadowlands—which was later adapted into the 1993 Oscar-nominated Anthony Hopkins film.
“I rather fell into acting,” he says. “I auditioned for it hoping to get a small part and won the lead role. After that, I got very interested in him and toured a one-man play based on [Lewis’] book A Grief Observed. That changed slightly and it became a general play on C.S. Lewis called An Evening With C.S. Lewis, which we’ve been touring for 20 years and likely have put on 1,500 performances.”
His Churchill play emerged the way many recent creative endeavors have—as a result of the Covid pandemic. With theaters shut down for the better part of a year during the lockdown, Payne found himself with nine months of spare time and needed a project. Taking up a suggestion to write a new play about Winston Churchill, he spent the duration of the lockdowns researching and writing the play.
“Churchill’s importance was primarily during the Second World War, his leadership role, and his willingness and doggedness to not capitulate to Hitler. He was also a great friend to America throughout his political career, he met with eight presidents or would-be presidents, and his mother was American; so this country was a great influence in his life. There is a lot of American history in Churchill’s story, particularly in the early years,” he says.
Payne approached the process of writing Churchill with a desire to cast a wider look on his life than most contemporary portrayals—which usually just focus on World War II. He wanted to find what made the man tick and spent time researching his school days and the lives of the people who influenced him, painting a more general perspective on the man’s life.
“As an actor, I try to focus on the way he spoke—deliberately, slowly,” he says of how he captures the man. “I try to capture that part of his personality. If you come to An Evening With C.S. Lewis or Christmas With C.S. Lewis, it has a different feel and pace. The best way I can put it is there are 12,000 words in the Lewis scripts and 9,000 words in the Churchill script, which tells you something about the delivery. If you speak too fast, you’re not doing Churchill.”
Churchill held its premiere in Boca Raton, Florida in the Fall of 2021, which doubled as a test performance to see if audiences would approve of the play. It quickly sold out, and subsequently sold out a second performance in Delray Beach, and then sold out further performances in Huntsville, Alabama.
I was lucky enough to see a performance of Churchill last year when it toured through Bowling Green, Kentucky, just two months after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II—who plays a major role in the play as a leading figure in post-World War II British politics and who shares a mentor relationship with the former Prime Minister. Curiously, that was the only major performance that underperformed, according to Payne.
“The death of Queen Elizabeth might have had an effect on the patrons, but I think people are just interested in her. It added a little extra aspect after she passed on,” he says. “Boca Raton sold out, Delray sold out, Huntsville sold out, and then we come to Bowling Green and only 200 people turn out. So, we weren’t very impressed with Bowling Green. Maybe they don’t like Churchill.”
Payne says the reaction to the plays has been very strong since it premiered, but each performance improves slightly on the material as he makes minor adjustments to the script and performance to tighten it over time. The essence of the show has stayed the same, but the small improvements have incrementally improved it over time. “The reaction has been very strong. I rarely do the show without receiving a standing ovation.”
Even among some historically illiterate younger viewers, Payne finds that the reaction to the play is very strong.
“I’ve sold out because there are loads of people who Churchill was a figure in their lives, and they’re a more mature audience. It may not affect young people, and they probably wouldn’t be interested in an FDR play—because of its history and because it was a long time ago. But I had a group of young people come to one show and they loved it. When they came, they didn’t know if it was going to be a boring dialog about what happened in the past, but they came along and met a man with an incredible sense of humor. They’re laughing more than they think they’d like it.”
This weekend’s performance isn’t the first time that Payne has toured through Nashville, as he has visited the town many times before and toured his various shows. He performed his play Christmas With C.S. Lewis at TPAC just this past December to four sold-out crowds, but this weekend marks the first time Churchill has played in Nashville.
Churchill was only supposed to play for three performances this weekend, but the initial three sold out almost immediately and necessitated expanding this stop on the tour to five shows. A handful of tickets are still available for individual seats, but the Andrew Johnson Theater downtown is already set to be packed for all five performances.
David Payne’s Churchill will perform between October 5 and 8 at the Tennessee Performance Arts Center. You can get more information here.