A Cold Supper Behind Harrods is an interesting piece set in 1997 just after the election of the ‘New Labour’ government. It deals with the intertwining stories of three ex-special forces operatives from World War II as they prepare to give a televised tribute to their friend Patricia, a fourth operative who unfortunately met an untimely death during the war. All of the protagonists had served within the ‘Special Operations Executive’, each with a different function and each carrying their own burden of guilt from their time serving within it.
Vera Atkins is the first to grace the stage. She appears disinterested with the scenario, only wanting to complete her crossword puzzle when our second protagonist, Leo, steers the conversation toward Patricia their fallen colleague. Indeed, Vera doesn’t seem interested in the conversation at all until John Harrison is guided in by Chloe the stage manager. John seems at first to be a benevolent and sweet old hero, a field operative who saw active service in the war. However, he soon shows his true colours when he pinches the young stage manager’s bottom and demands champagne rather than tea. Vera seems to change entirely upon John’s appearance she intermittently and subtly through the course of the play throws verbal daggers at him whilst maintaining a steadfast air of elegance and a razor sharp mind. Vera comments on ‘finally finding the ghost’ and how lucky he was to survive the war, despite being moved from camp to camp.
Patricia is both the physical and metaphorical ghost hanging over all of them. All three characters deal with her in a slightly different way. Leo, a codebreaker, is racked with guilt over her death. Believing that he had presented a strong case to his superior for her mission to be cancelled, only to be ignored. John is only too quick to jump on this and also apportion blame to him. John is also quick to blame Vera for sending Patricia and many others like her to France to certain death because they ignored his warnings.
Leo keeps repeating that Vera “never left the war” and this becomes apparent as the show comes to a climax and she holds John to account for Patricia’s death using all of the interrogation evidence that she had amassed over the past 50 years.
Throughout the play she is drip feeding him poisonous jibes which finally culminate in her confrontation with John and forcing him to face the truth about his own betrayals which led to Patricia’s death. It mirrors the slow and painful torture techniques that they describe the Nazi’s using on Patricia herself during the time in the camp. Patricia stands over the scene as a silent ghostly figure in the familiar striped outfit of a Concentration Camp inmate.
It becomes clear within the final act of the show that Vera has orchestrated this whole reunion having discovered that John had been acting as a double agent for the English, but also within the camps for the Nazis to ‘calm captured soldiers and operatives’, in order to save his own skin. He disappeared to Australia and moved several times making him difficult to track down, so Vera worked with Chloe, a History graduate just making her way in the BBC, to track him down so that they could tell Patricia’s story.
The offer of a cold supper behind Harrods at The Special Forces club is too much for John, he doesn’t want to come face to face with the men he betrayed. The show ends poignantly with Patricia herself wearing 1940’s attire announcing John’s death of a heart attack.
The performances are excellent, the staging simple yet succinct. I urge all to go and watch this gem of a show.
A Cold Supper behind Harrods is streaming online until 22 September 2021. For more information and tickets see Original Theatre Online’s website.