By Tom Black
A man in naval uniform checks your name on the list. You step into a pub crammed with leather armchairs. Vera Lynn emanates from the gramophone. A young woman welcomes you and remarks how frightful the situation is. A man in pinstripes hands you your National Identity card, reminds you that today is 4th October 1940, and that the Prime Minister, Lord Halifax, has offered his resignation to His Majesty. If you have any further questions on the military situation, you’re told that there are plenty of maps and personnel who can detail matters downstairs: inside the Cabinet Auxiliary War Room. But the man in pinstripes is happy to confirm that the number of German troops currently on the south-east coast is “somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million”.
Over the next two and a half hours, you and your fellow audience members will oversee the war effort, and if telltale clues like Lord Halifax, or a fireside photograph of Edward VIII, not George VI, are not enough, the unfolding military situation down in the Cabinet Auxiliary War Room usually makes clear to all but the totally historically illiterate that this isn’t quite what happened in real life.
The show - described by its makers as a form of game theatre - is called For King & Country: 1940, and is running until 28th April in the London Bridge area. It’s less of a traditional play and more of a loose structure within which the audience - who are all backbench MPs called upon to form an emergency government and elect a PM, cabinet and so on - make real, impactful decisions, many of them based on the real plans to defend against Sea Lion. Voting to give the Prime Minister the power to order gas attacks on British soil will mean the Minister for War can ask the PM to give that order, and the battle for Kent and Sussex will be forever changed - but the elected Foreign Secretary may have to smooth things over with the disapproving Americans. Similarly, the Minister for Information’s regular speeches can have good and bad results - reassuring rhetoric will earn Home Guard units rising up to join the front line around the country, but mistakes or silliness put Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on the march, demanding a change of government.
Director and show creator Owen Kingston explains that this need for the audience to have meaningful choices to make is what necessitated the alternate history scenario. “You can’t default to what worked in real life if the scenario isn’t something that ever actually happened.” Kingston is also not sheepish about admitting the other reason for doing an alternate history show is his own unabashed geekery. Most of the cast have at the very least a hobbyist’s interest in history, and all are skilled roleplayers. There are very few scripted elements of the show, so being able to react to audience ideas and dialogue in a convincingly 1940s manner - whether the actor in question is a Major, Squadron Leader, WAAF Flight Officer or barmaid - is vital. Audiences have reported that some of the most rewarding experiences on offer in the show come from proposing an entirely unexpected course of action - say, wanting to speak to De Valera urgently - in this immersive alternate history setting and finding the actors totally willing to action it and play it out. Adding alternate outcomes on top of an alternate history setting plays into what Kingston calls his goal of “creating a WWII sandbox”.
So how does the alternate history hold up? It’s well-documented on this website and elsewhere that Operation Sea Lion was a non-starter, a plan too ludicrous even for Hitler, and that the outcome would have been very bad for the Germans. However, Kingston and his team have come up with an answer to the obvious question for any alternate history fan - “how on earth did the Kriegsmarine get past the Royal Navy?” - that, if you don’t squint too hard at it, just about works. It certainly does enough to flag up that the show is aware of the difficulties the Germans would have faced crossing the Channel, and that it has tried to address them.
Other elements of the timeline are more unambiguously plausible. Edward VIII remained on the throne thanks to a compromise whereby Wallis Simpson become Princess Wallis, but not Queen. The presence of an activist monarch in the late 1930s, and one who was far more pro-Appeasement than his brother, creates a political mood personified by a longer-lasting George Lansbury leadership of the Labour Party and the appointment of Halifax, not Churchill, to succeed Chamberlain in 1940. Britain is less well-equipped to fight this war - but that doesn’t mean she cannot win it.
Or does it? Readers who’ve investigated the plot of For King & Country: 1944, the sequel show which is running in tandem to 1940, will have noticed that four years later, Britain is under Nazi occupation. D-Day is about to begin, but from Ireland, not Portsmouth, and its target is not Normandy, but Liverpool and Bristol. This doesn’t mean 1940 is rigged to always end in defeat, however - without giving anything away, it becomes clear once you and your colleagues start defending the country that there is more at stake than you first realised.
If 1940 is a plummy “keep calm and carry on” experience that turns darker and darker as the odds stack up against old Blighty, 1944 begins in a dark place - the same characters you met in the first show have had to endure three years of Occupation (Britain surrendered in the spring of 1941), and optimism is in short supply - and begins to get more hopeful as you and your fellow audience members, this time members of the British Resistance, assist with the largest amphibious invasion in history. But, like the first show, there are twists and turns along the way, and once again your decisions will change how the show progresses and, ultimately, ends.
1944’s alternate history presented different challenges to 1940 in the creation of the show. While 1940 prioritised creating a unique situation that would be challenging, 1944 has the difficult task of presenting a near-unrecognisable world in a short space of time. Innovative methods are used as a result - not only will the characters happily tell you what they’ve been up to in the last four years, but there are also custom-made posters on the walls, a pub quiz with some leading questions, and even a table of raffle prizes that includes a signed photograph of Sir Oswald Mosley working hard as Home Secretary (along with two tickets to see Mr Wodehouse’s latest hit).
With the second show, there’s also the added danger of tipping into poor taste because of the nature of Nazi occupation. As a result, the story of Britain’s Occupation is based very closely on real equivalent Occupations on the continent. In Buxton, a Vichy-esque government is led by David Lloyd George, whose actions in OTL 1940 suggested he was open to becoming a British Pétain. In the world of For King & Country, he gets his chance to do so, and govern half the country as a puppet.
German plans for the Occupation of Britain have been incorporated into the show, but also modified to react to the wider changes in the world across four years of war. Reinhard Heydrich is Reichskommissar of Great Britain, his reign of terror in Prague uninterrupted thanks to an inability for SOE to carry on operating. The notorious ‘Black Book’ of planned arrestees by the Nazis is present in the show and can be picked up and read by anyone - clues can be found within it that help Resistance activities. A Resistance cell calling itself ‘the Great Western’ has been smuggling Jews out of London’s ghettos to the West Coast, and then on to the safety of American-occupied Ireland, for twelve months.
The Resistance too is based on continental equivalents. Most notably, it’s not one cohesive organisation, echoing the splits in the Maquis. The New Model Army takes its name from the English Civil War but is more aligned with the goals of the Russian one, taking funding, operatives and weaponry from Moscow via submarine. The Auxiliary Units are more traditional in their politics but more akin to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, living off the land and not hiding in plain sight. Members of the Anglican League (a nod to the classic A Very British Civil War) are largely organised through the Church of England and remain pillars of their communities by day as they plan to demolish railways and fuel dumps by night.
Kingston’s goal of an alternate history scenario that’s challenging because you can’t ‘default to what worked’ is therefore even more strongly achieved in 1944 than in 1940. But there’s still room for radical ideas and ‘AH on top of AH’, and historians will have some advantages. Air superiority is key, no matter what timeline you’re in. Anyone who’s studied Heydrich will know not to underestimate him. And experts on the rivalry between the SS and Wehrmacht during the war may find there are ways for them to exploit that in the chaos of the invasion.
As a point of transparency, I should declare that I am one of the actors in both shows, and was involved in devising the second, so I’ve delayed writing this article for some time as I weighed up how it would look to publicise it here on SLP. But more than a hundred five star reviews from audiences and a suite of similarly impressed critics makes me confident that I can write approvingly about this exercise in live alternate history without accusations of bias - it’s quite a hit with the general public, however you slice it. As a huge AH nerd myself, I can testify that it’s great fun from a counterfactual perspective - and more than a few SLP Forum users have visited and said the same.
Immersive theatre is experiencing a golden age, and game theatre has begun to be talked about as its next chapter. Alternate history game theatre may remain a niche element within it, but Parabolic Theatre are onto something - their next show, entitled Crisis? What Crisis? takes place in an alternate 1979 where Britain’s Winter of Discontent has got a lot worse.
For King & Country: 1940 and For King & Country: 1944 both run until 28th April 2019 at the COLAB Factory near London Bridge. More information can be found on the show website.