Bully Boy

Sandy Toksvig
St James’s Theatre Productions in association with Lee Dean, Charles Diamond, Daniel Schumann and Royal and Derngate, Northampton
St James’s Theatre

Anthony Andrews as Major Oscar Hadley and Joshua Miles as Private Edward Clark Credit: Mike Eddowes
Joshua Miles as Private Edward Clark and Anthony Andrews as Major Oscar Hadley Credit: Mike Eddowes

Originally commissioned by the Nuffield Theatre Southampton, Sandy Toksvig’s two-hander opens the new St James’s Theatre, built on the site of the old Westminster Theatre near Victoria Station. I saw it, on World Mental Health Day; appropriately, for at its heart is the effect that the stresses of warfare have on the minds of our soldiers.

Major Oscar Hadley of the military police is investigating a Middle East incident in Iraq, or it could be Afghanistan, the play makes the point that most people aren’t entirely clear about the difference. During an assault on a village, a civilian woman has been shot and her eight-year-old son Omar drowned in a well.

Major Hadley has been interviewing the platoon involved, the self-styled “Bully Boys”, and is down to the last 19-year-old lad Private Edward Clark from Burnley. The play charts the changing relationship between Anthony Andrews’s sardonically patrician Major and Joshua Miles's traumatised Eddy. It would be so easy for these to become clichéd performances but both the playing and writing give them depth and make compulsive theatre.

Director Patrick Sandford ensures his production is full of surprises as it switches between the men’s confrontation and nightmare evocations of Middle East conflict. It is elegantly mounded in Simon Higlett’s sloping-walled set which, apart from a coat of arms that suggest a courtroom, offers clean lines and a blank surface, free of prejudgement and prejudice, on which flashed images can suggest locations or evidence.

Returning from a trip to the scene of the incident, their transport is blown up by a mine. Eddie’s fellow squaddies are killed and the Major survives only because Eddie saves him. We return to the UK with the coffins and the investigation continues, but Toksvig doesn’t offer us a trial scene or court-martial. Instead we begin to get an understanding of what these men have been through—both officer and private, for Major Hadley not only can’t walk but has his own mental damage, despite his wry humour.

“My parents named me after an award,” this Oscar tells us, but the incident in which he lost his legs was far from heroic and it is he who discovers that Eddie has never fired a shot. That’s not unusual, as he tells us: after the battle of Gettysburg, of the thousands of abandoned guns found there most were loaded but not fired. Soldiers are reluctant to kill despite their training.

Hadley is a Falklands survivor with his own horror story and provides the information that among the veterans of that war there have been 264 suicides, more soldiers than were killed in the fighting. It is he who indicts politicians who tell lies and send soldiers to fight wars without understanding what they are doing. Asked by Eddie why they are there, he says ”to stabilize the area, to make it easier to operate and secure mineral resources”, though admits that to others he gives the answer that they are fighting “for Freedom”.

This is not a documentary. Toksvig is not saying her incidents happened; nor is she offering any answers, but she is raising questions, questions that needed answering in 1860s America, by Thatcher’s government, by the Blair administration and today.

It is a play worth seeing and it is being played in a sparkling new theatre. The 312-seater main house is currently configured with a thrust stage around which the first few rows begin to curve and has a single-tier, steeply-raked auditorium. It allows for people being much taller than when most of our West End theatres were built. Its seats are comfortable and even a shorter person like me will be able to see from everywhere, though that means the rear seats are pushed ever upwards.

The foyer feels more like a hotel bar with plenty of tables. This show plays 100 minutes without an interval but I would suspect that it may feel rather crowded when there is one, especially as the bar is also open to the public all day and evening. One advantage of this is that there is somewhere to sit if you want. A stylish sculptural marble staircase leads up to the brasserie restaurant which offers modestly-priced set meals as well as an a la carte menu. Downstairs there is a flat-floor 100-seat studio theatre for cabaret, jazz and comedy which is also available for private event hire.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton