Monday 13th October, 6pm – Vue West End, Screen 5
Saturday 18th October, 12.15pm – Curzon Mayfair
War Book shows us the workings of a present-day backroom of civil servants and politicians engaged in a training exercise from the 1950s, dealing with the threat of a devastating nuclear attack on Britain. In this imagined scenario, Indian and Pakistan have engaged in nuclear attacks on one another, and Britain must choose her next moves carefully.
The group must deal with the futility of tact and diplomacy when faced with the possibility that in a few short hours half of the country could be wiped out anyway. There’s a clash of ideologies between Ben Chaplin’s Gary, a smarmy pragmatist, who delights in belittling his colleagues, and Shaun Evans’ Tom, a humanist and passionate advocate for peace at all costs.
Chairing the table is Philippa, played by Sophie Okonedo, who attempts to instil calm and level-headedness in the group, even as they discuss such alarming measures as possible border closures, grounding of all flights, and diversion of all non-essential medical resources to treating the casualties of the blast.
The most obvious comparison is to Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, with its rapid-fire, clever-clever dialogue and cynical depiction of politicos, particularly Gary, and Nicholas Burns’ James, as self-serving, morally corrupt careerists. There’s a fatalist dark humour throughout the piece, as they discuss the potential millions dead, knowing that it is at once hypothetical, yet has also been, at points, frighteningly possible. They recall advice from the 1980s, when the terror of the Cold War reached its highpoint, instructing them to cover themselves in blankets and stay away from windows should the four-minute warning sound. The notion of such pointless measures to protect oneself from nuclear annihilation is at once both terrifying and grimly humorous.
But as the exercise nears its conclusion and the group must make their final decisions on emergency measures, the tension builds and things get personal as Tom and Gary nearly come to blows. The humour vanishes, and once the final votes are in, the group leave the room in more or less silence, each of them affected by the practical exercise more than they would care to admit.
With great performances, snappy dialogue and a neat balance of bleak humour and deathly seriousness, this is an affecting illustration of the fragility of the structures that hold society together.
War Book release date is yet to be announced.
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