Theatre Review: Bully Boy by Sandi Toksvig, Nuffield Theatre Southampton, May 2011

You might remember a while back I wrote a series of posts for Brew Drinking Thinkings, an online magazine for women. Sadly, this doesn’t now seem to be available so I thought I’d republish a review I wrote back then for Bully Boy, a play by Sandi Toksvig dealing with Service Personnel and PTSD. The reason for this is that the play has recently reopened in London at the St James Theatre and it’s really well worth seeing if you’re able.

Major Oscar Hadley (Anthony Andrews) gives evidence to a military tribunal about his recent investigation of a British frontline unit and his findings. And so opens Bully Boy, written by Sandi Toksvig, a new play commissioned and directed by Patrick Sandford at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton.

The play tells, through flashback, Major Hadley’s interpretation of his investigation of a self-styled ‘bully boy’ unit and their connection with the death of two civilians. His initial suppositions are tested when he interrogates Pvt. Eddie Clarke (Joshua Miles) and realises that the truth may not be what it appears.

When Eddie saves Oscar’s life after a car bomb attack the two develop a co-dependence which continues and becomes more complicated when they return to the UK. The audience realises that while the play has been focusing on Eddie and his steadily-worsening mental health, Oscar too is damaged by his experiences during the Falklands war the least of which is his obvious injury – his confinement to a wheelchair.

As has been pointed out in everything I’ve read about the play, it is surprising to hear Sandi Toksvig’s name attached; she is well known for her comedy writing and, it seems, is equally comfortable writing seriously and compassionately about difficult subjects. There are moments of levity in the piece, but Toksvig’s impeccable research also points out some startling figures about combat stress in the military – for instance, did you realise that more Falklands war veterans have committed suicide since the war than were killed in the war itself (300 to 250)?

Although the play could be seen as Army-bashing it is established very quickly that it is actually very supportive of the Army, while condemning the situations in which our soldiers are put and the lack of support for them when they attempt to return to a normal life. I took part in a Q & A with the actors and Patrick Sandford after the performance and they all emphasised the shocking lack of facilities and support which they looked at during their research.

By coincidence, another audience member pointed out during the Q & A that he had been in the Army for 36 years and very much appreciated the stance the play took in looking at soldiers as men dealing with difficult situations rather than as a whole organisation with a poor reputation.

The stage at the Nuffield Theatre is built around a revolve which was used to good effect in Bully Boy and kept the pace going. At the heart of the set was a well, we suppose the scene of the civilian killing, and this stayed on stage at all times – it was an almost oppressive reminder of the initial event that had gotten Eddie to where he was. Aside from this the set and props were sparse allowing the audience to concentrate on the brilliant characterisations by the actors.

Anthony Andrews, best known as Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, was initially the no-nonsense authority figure with years in the Army and yet as they play progressed he showed real vulnerability as a man who thought he had come to terms with his experiences and yet was still haunted by them.

Eddie was played by Joshua Miles who, despite having yet to graduate from drama school, gave an assured performance, portraying experiences he couldn’t possibly have had with an energetic – and sometimes uncomfortable – nervousness.

At the very heart of Bully Boy is the challenging issue of combat stress and the mental health needs of our troops and the charity Combat Stress has been involved throughout the rehearsal stages of the play, providing insight into what soldiers may experience on their return to ‘normal life’. Joshua Miles also explained during the Q & A that his cousin is currently serving in the Army and was extremely open with his experiences in combat which enhanced Joshua’s performance.

Both my friend and I left Bully Boy saying that we had ‘enjoyed it’, but that’s not really the right word. We were both glad to have had the opportunity to see the play and found it provoking and uncomfortable in parts but mostly a quite gripping piece of theatre that is supremely relevant this week when the military covenant has been signed into law.

The Nuffield Theatre is jointly funded by the Arts Council England, the University of Southampton and Hampshire County Council. You can find out more about them on their website or on Twitter .

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