Sandi Toksvig’s Bully Boy covers terrain that’s become depressingly familiar over the past few years: the aftermath of a civilian casualty in a foreign warzone in which British troops are involved. Originally produced at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre in 2011 it’s revived here in the same production, heading up the inaugural season at the St James Theatre – and there aren’t many weeks in between when the play wouldn’t have felt topical.
Eddie, a young soldier from Burnley, leaves school with a GCSE under his belt and signs up to the army. Shocked and awed by the intensity of his first experience in a theatre of war, he struggles to cope; in an unfamiliar, unpredictable environment the only constant is the camaraderie of his battalion. Then there’s an incident; the battalion is attacked while out on patrol; the events are unclear, there are casualties, an eight year old boy among them apparently thrown down a well; Eddie stands accused. Major Oscar Hadley, a Falklands veteran, is flown out to investigate; and Toksvig’s two-hander follows their interactions from first meeting to court marshal and memorial service, interspersed with extracts from Major Hadley’s testimony to a tribunal.
Toksvig’s style is passionate, committed and enraged. She writes in her programme note of conversations with soldiers, of her psychotherapist partner’s distress at dealing with ex-forces cases of mental health issues, of all the experiences facing former and serving personnel that are far much more than ‘can be covered in a single evening’. And if this is the restricted pallet of issues – covering as it does mental health, depression, disability, fear, lack of understanding from family, relationship breakdowns, loneliness, alcoholism – then the full gamut is truly frightening.
Toksvig doesn’t shy away from the ideological complexity here either, the balance between being pro-solider and anti-war. On one occasion a journalist is rumoured to be investigating the eight-year-old’s death which, given the trauma that more digging around would cause the already-distressed Eddie, we’d almost rather it was left to rest.
But Toksvig’s convictions don’t always make for good theatre. As an exercise in raising awareness of the hardships facing service personnel, and keeping them in the public consciousness, Bully Boy succeeds. That this is a stage play is almost incidental. While the issues may make for rich debating subjects, there’s too little sense of character development or dramatic intrigue for two essentially archetypal protagonists – a young Northern soldier with no qualifications, a tendency for casual racism and a love of video games, and a pompous old Falklands veteran – to bear the weight of such leaden issues, however real and vital those issues might be.
Anthony Andrews and Joshua Miles do what they can with what they’ve got, offering solid performances that are difficult to fault but rarely theatrically thrilling. And ultimately there’s little that defines Bully Boy in essence as a stage play; the potential afforded by the medium is rarely used to propel the action, develop the characters or deepen the argument in a way that might not have been achieved in another form. Patrick Sandford’s production is a nuance-free zone, a literal accompaniment to Toksvig’s dialogue; an approach confirmed by Scott Radnor’s video designs against the back wall – films of moors when in Lancashire, of books when in the Major’s study, and so on ad infinitum. They do little to embellish the content (other than making me wonder when the spoken word lost its power to invoke location and we started needing literal visualisations instead).
As for the St James itself, a new arts venture on this scale – albeit one whose hotel-like foyer, outpourings of grey marble and shitload of Mr Sheen seem to anticipate its own conversion to a conference centre – can only be applauded. I’m sure I won’t be the only one to question the decision to build from scratch an entirely inflexible, end-on space (rather than, say, one with the flexibility of the Menier or Young Vic’s main space) and the top-band ticket prices are almost as dizzying as the height of the rake. But with an accompanying Studio programme launching shortly, an in-house producing team and a seeming desire to collaborate with regional houses, this is a welcome addition to London’s midscale theatre map.