Interview: How I won the battle of Churchill, by Tony Tortora

Churchill at Carriageworks Theatre.

Churchill at Carriageworks Theatre.

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You may have seen Churchill at Leeds’ The Carriagework last week but the tale behind the drama is almost as interesting as the drama itself, writes Weekend Editor Graham Chalmers.

The story of how the play Churchill finally came to the stage in London and Leeds is almost as intriguing as the subject matter itself, including, as it does, a would-be playwright from Harrogate, a world-famous actor, and years of heartache.

Our story could start in 2012 with stellar actor Simon Callow saying he wanted to do the play.

Or in 2005 when Callow suggested the Ambassador Theatre Group in London produce it with himself playing Churchill opposite Antony Sher as Hitler.

Or in 2002 when Damien Crudden at York Theatre Royal took up the play and asked for a ‘star name’ before agreeing to get involved.

Or two years before that when David Armour of Headrow Productions read it and liked it and wanted to do something with it.

Or in 1998 when debut playwright Tony Tortora actually wrote the play and started sending it to agents.

Now 69 and retired, this Harrogate man who lives in the St George’s Road area seems as much surprised as relieved to see his labour of love becoming a success after all these years.

“It was hugely frustrating. You begin to get suidical. I used to own a huge library of plays, hundreds of them, but I gave them all away to Oxfam. I couldn’t face looking at them. I thought it was going to end up a posthumous play.”

Currently running at Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds, Churchill is presented by Brian Daniels and New End Theatre Beyond and directed by Richard Bonham.

It’s an enthralling production based on the premise that Churchill and Hitler are thrust together in the after-life in the limbo between heaven and hell.

In a way, the genesis of the play goes even further back than the 15 years its taken to go from page to stage.

A US soldier during the Vietnam War, Tony says thanks to TV and films it was the Second World War that seemed “his war” while growing up a child in Baltimore.

Later, having moved to Harrogate in the 1990s for the sake of his English wife, he was inspired by seeing Robert Hardy playing Churchill in a TV drama.

“I’ve got no idea why it’s taken so long to get from original idea to actually doing the show in Leeds. If I knew the answer to getting a play done quickly, I would have done it. But it’s been a very pleasurable experience meeting so many interesting people along the way.”

Tony hasn’t written a play since 2002. In fact, he’s only ever written two altogether – Churchill and a drama about Chicago policemen in the 1950s called Cops (aka Collaborators) which got some interest from the National Theatre in the 1990s.

Despite the many setbacks and false dawns, I suggest that makes Tony’s strike record remarkably successful for a ‘new’ playwright.

He laughs. “Practically no one apart from my wife and daughter knew I wrote plays at all until I told them it was going to be performed. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say I’d always hoped it would be a hit.”

After Churchill ends its run in Leeds, it will move to the Arts Depot in Finchley.

“My remaining family in the States are flying across to see the show in London. I would never have encouraged them to spend this sort of money. I’m really moved.”

Who knows, one other person might turn up, too.

“As recently as last year. Simon Callow re-read the script. He’s said he will almost certainly come to see it at the Arts Depot.”

Churchill is at Carriageworks, Leeds until Saturday, July 20. For tickets, call 0113 2243801 or visit www.carriageworkstheatre.org.uk