Winston Churchill is arguably the most significant figure of the 20th century and British actor and playwright David Payne’s one-man show, “Churchill,” celebrates not only his accomplishments, but the man himself. The show will play four performances at Delray Beach Playhouse and Mizner Park Cultural Center on Oct. 2 and 3, respectively.
Mr. Payne, 79, was born in London and currently splits his time between Nashville, Tennessee and a town on the south coast of England called Eastbourne. Although he has previously written and starred in another solo show based on the life of C.S. Lewis, he owes the creation of “Churchill” to downtime he experienced during the pandemic.
“Originally I had no plans to do a show for Churchill,” he said. “I’d been asked a number of times to do it, I suppose, because I’m English. But I had no time, being on the road with ‘An Evening With C.S. Lewis.’ It’s hard to write when you’re moving around. Then in April of last year I had over 50 shows cancelled, so I had nothing to do. That’s when my agent came to me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a show about Churchill and I realized I actually would. I spent all of last year working on it.”
In Mr. Payne’s play, Winston Churchill has just been awarded honorary U.S. citizenship by President John F. Kennedy. In recognition of this unprecedented occasion, the American-Oxford Society has asked the former prime minister to address them and discuss what this honor means to him. The audience learns of Churchill’s exploits during the Boer War and his constant battles with Britain’s fellow politicians, as well as his special relationship with America and its presidents. In addition, Churchill reveals intimate and touching details of two special women in his life — his wife Clementine and Queen Elizabeth II.
“My biggest challenges in putting this show together came in researching what Churchill wrote, researching what others wrote about him, researching what his wife was like and researching his relationship with Queen Elizabeth, because he was prime minister when she came to the throne,” Mr. Payne said. “It was challenging researching the American part of his life, not least because his mother was American.”
He added Churchill was, because of his political life, a man very much involved in American politics — and presidents.
“Churchill met people like William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and of course Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom he developed a strong friendship during the second world war,” Mr. Payne said. “Also Dwight D. Eisenhower and of course President Kennedy, who conferred on him the honorary citizenship, about which he said, ‘This honor is without parallel.’ He had a lot to do with presidents and America in general. The contribution of America in his life was significant.”
He added his show was developed with the great assistance of early audiences for whom he performed it.
“I rarely listen to critics, but I do like to listen to my audience,” he said. “I’ve found they’re the best directors you can get, as they sit in their seats watching you. That’s how you find out whether a show will fly or not.”
Mr. Payne added his audiences wanted to learn more about Churchill’s life outside of his involvement in World War II, which so many already know well.
“I’ve watched so many shows recently about Churchill and of course the main focus of attention is primarily on the second world war,” he said. “In my show he says, ‘When I give my recollections about my life, most people expect me to concentrate those recollections on World War II. But as significant as that event was in my life, it only lasted five years. There were 65 years of lifetime experiences, including failures and successes, that led up to that point. And those experiences were what shaped me to be able to perform my duties in the second world war.’ So he goes on to talk about those early experiences and childhood days.”
Mr. Payne noted Churchill’s boyhood was sad in many ways.
“He was separated from his parents, because he went to boarding school,” he said. “When he left there, he was still separated from them, because due to their passions, they were hardly ever home and very often apart. He loved his parents dearly, but he rarely saw them.”
Mr. Payne pointed out that Churchill’s early reputation as First Lord of the Admiralty was severely compromised during World War I.
“He authorized what is now notoriously known as The Gallipoli Affair, where thousands of men died,” he said. “That was a dark experience that even his wife said she saw him nearly die of grief as a result of that.”
Mr. Payne added the aim of his play is to bring to light all of the aspects of Churchill’s life that made him the man he was.
“I want audiences to say, ‘Hah! I didn’t know that about Churchill,’” he said. “This show makes me want to find out more about him.”