If you only see one soldiers-in-wheelchairs play this week, see Our Boys.
But if you’re planning to see two, then Bully Boy should probably be the other one.
For a start, it’s a chance to nose around London’s newest theatre, the St James (just around the corner from Buckingham Palace) which has its own rewards:
“Oooo, the loos are very nice, you must try them” enthused Phil. “It’s like peeing into the top of a large toothpaste tube.”
Phil was so taken that he topped and tailed his trip to the interval-less Bully Boy to christen the porcelain twice.
But even the sure-fire enticement that “the mirrors are very flattering” wasn’t enough to persuade Andrew who was clearly practising water retention and clearly felt no need to reapply his lippy.
Anyhoo, Bully Boy is a two-hander about a private and a major in the army written by -bizarrely – panel show stalwart Sandi Toksvig. It’s a curiously bog-standard format exploring the developing relationship between two very different people, some revelations, some growing up, all that kind of thing. It’s competent enough but we can’t help but wish that Ms Toksvig had written a lesbian play. When was the last time you saw a lesbian play by a lesbian outside of the Oval House or the Drill Hall?
Anyway, instead of lesbians we have Major Oscar Hadley and Private Edward Clark from Burnley, played with huge gusto by Anthony Andrews and Joshua Miles. In fact both are little short of astonishing. So much so that there was discussion as to whether, being at the St James, these performances would be eligible for Olivier nominations.
But possibly Toksvig doesn’t feel as passionate about lesbians as she does about the effects of war on those involved and the treatment (or lack of) of soldiers returning from wars. Her programme notes suggest that she has done her research and is understandably angry.
Falklands vet Major Hadley is confined to a wheelchair and is on the front line somewhere investigating an incident where a local woman was shot and her son thrown down a well. The 18 year old private is ‘in the dock’. But it’s not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit and can those who have never been in wars ever really understand the effect it has on the mind?
The Major and Private have both been in wars and presumably this is the point, that through this they form a bond of understanding. But this is where it falls apart. It almost becomes the equivalent of a buddy movie. Dramatically the bromance seems convenient and the rapport between Andrews and Miles – while superbly forged – left the Whingers unconvinced.
Still it’s often compelling enough as the actors and Patrick Sandford’s direction stuff some real fizz into the proceedings and Toksvig’s comedic skills are permitted to surface a bit late in the play, especially when the two get drunk together.
Phil was almost tempted to dig out his food-on-stage thesis as there was a very literal display of it here as sausage rolls were thrown around. Added tension was derived from fretting as to whether they would get mashed up in the workings of the wheelchair. The Whingers were in the front row and Phil’s anxiety increased after the curtain call as Andrew – who confessed to feeling peckish – eyed the floor of the stage musing “Do you think they’re vegetarian?”.
The auditorium is raked like a ride at Thorpe Park. Andrew stumbled as they clambered down with Phil following suit and tripping as well. The Whingers might have ended up in wheelchairs too, which in the circumstances would have been appropriate. Had no one thought of installing a Stannah Stairlift for our boys? Mind you, being in a wheelchair would have meant watching from high up in a sniper’s nest at the back so we couldn’t recommend it.
“Reminds me of the Shaw Theatre or the Trafalgar Studios” mumbled Andrew.
“Feels like a lap-dancing club” replied Phil, adding hastily “not that I’d know”.
The foyer is a bit like that of a posh hotel, there was great debate about Mark Humphrey’s much-trumpeted grey marble staircase with both deciding they it wasn’t for them possibly as they’d recently proved they’re of an age where stairs are now an obstacle. “Looks a bit cheap” was Andrew’s conclusion, adding “though clearly it wasn’t”.
Both approved of the outside. “Looks like a proper theatre,” enthused Andrew while Phil struggled to think of the word for marquee.
On the downside, the theatre has some severe programming hiccups which need addressing. On Sunday 18th November one has to choose between gag-master Barry Cryer in one auditorium and Anne Reid’s solo cabaret in the other. What’s a Whinger to do?
The St James Theatre replaces the old Westminster Theatre which was 75% detroyed by fire in 2002. History here.
Other notable firsts: there was a “modern dramatists” picture round in Pointless the other day which featured a pointless Caryl Churchill.