‘Bully Boy’ at the St James Theatre

Watching Bully Boy, by Sandi Toksvig, made me reflect on how much it is possible to forgive in the text of a play, when the performances are brilliant and committed.

The action of the play shows the development of a friendship between Major Oscar Hadley, played by Anthony Andrews, and Private Edward Clark, played by Joshua Miles.  Major Hadley is investigating the death of a young boy in an incident in an unspecified country in which the British army is fighting an insurgency.  Private Clark is a member of the self-styled Bully Boys, who may have been responsible for the boy’s death.

The theme under examination is the terrible emotional and psychological impact of war has on the men who fight it; that the stress affects all classes of men with no respect for distinctions of rank, education or class.  So we learn not only of the trauma suffered by Private Clark on the loss of his battle mates, but also of the older,  more deeply buried anguish of Major Hadley, a disabled veteran of the Falklands conflict.

It was the actors’ portrayal of this pain and bewilderment, and the inadequacy of the inappropriate treatment they had been offered that was the strength of this production. It engages the emotions and convinces on the injustice being done to ex-servicemen, so many of whom suffer mental breakdown and suicide after they end their military careers.  There are shocking statistics that more people who served in the Falklands have since taken their own lives than were killed in the conflict itself.  It is worth spending time contemplating that fact.

The main problem for me was that the plot stretched the bounds of credibility too far: I do not believe there are any circumstances in which a Major and a Private would establish the kind of relationship depicted; the rules of military protocol go far too deep in service personnel.

For a piece of polemic, it had quite a lot of action, but for a play, it contained a bit too much polemic, in particular the random, out of the blue rants by the Major about the politicians who stay at home in comfort while sending the army to war.  It’s not that they aren’t valid points, it was more that they stuck out of the text like sore thumbs, and even Anthony Andrews had some difficulty in making them fit with the rest of his lines.  It is also a weakness that the investigation into the boy’s death is fudged, and there is no chance of a proper examination of the incident, leaving us with a one sided account of what is a more complicated dilemma.

None the less this is well worth seeing for the strength of the performances alone.

It was also great to experience the St James Theatre, freshly built and selling itself as the first new theatre in London for a number of years.  It’s modern, shiny and with a restaurant bar featuring a massive marble staircase.  The point of these features rather passed me by, but what I did like was the design of the interior of the theatre, reasonable leg room, and a good slope on the tiers of seats,so there was no concern over having to peer through the gap between the heads of those in the row in front.  I’d just like them to turn off the lift muzak which swirled around us while we were waiting for the play to begin.

Surely there is some irony in their publicity material highlighting their distance from the noise and crowds of the West End, when the theatre is situated in that seventh circle of hell around Victoria, squeezed between cacophonous road repairs and building demolition?

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