If I start out with a header like ‘The best thing I’ve ever seen at the theatre’ I know I’m being misleading straight away.
It’s a woolly statement: who knows what I’ve seen at the theatre? And do I mean this theatre or any theatre? And even if you accept that I really genuinely mean it rather than just having my silly head turned by being in the right mood in the right place at the right time – would it be true for you too?
So here’s precisely what I mean by that heading.
It came out of the way I was feeling during the applause at the end. I always applaud. I always applaud some more if there is an old pro on stage who has the timing and gumption to prolong it by sneaking in another bow. But usually when I’m applauding I feel that I’m papering over a couple of ifs and buts with claps (unless I’m at a big commercial pantomime when I’m just doing what I have to do to get out of there).
After Bully Boy at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatre tonight for the first time I can ever remember at a theatrical event I was applauding without prejudice or reservation. I meant absolutely every clap. If I had been the only person in the auditorium I would have been applauding just as much. Would I expect other people to feel the same way? I don’t know.
It was a play about the impact of military service on a person’s life, particularly the effects of being in combat and post traumatic stress disorder. It was written by Sandi Toksvig who is best known as a comedian and panellist on a number of top comedy shows. I didn’t doubt her ability to handle the intellectual challenge (she’s a bit QI and Radio Four) but I was prepared to make allowances for her as a writer. However as the play went on I realised I wasn’t having to make any allowances.
The performances from Anthony Andrews and Joshua Miles were very strong indeed. They inhabited their roles seamlessly, old soldier and crackling young buck respectively, and there is no doubt that Sandi’s words were in good hands. The set design – which is always a strong point of R&D productions – was spare but clever. The staging was dynamic. Everything worked really well.
But the best part of this for me was the uncompromising approach Bully Boy (and perhaps this title could have been something cruder and more abrasive) took to the cold hard facts of the story. The plot follows an investigation into the death of a young boy and his mother. Andrews is the investigator, a wheelchair bound Major haunted by his own war stories and Miles is the accused dragged back into the value system of the ‘civilised’ world while his mind is still observing the honour code of the battlefield.
It is not a courtroom drama, however. Bully Boy teasingly invites you to weigh up the innocence of the central character while reminding you that when someone goes to fight a war the very first thing they lose is their innocence. The distinction between the heroic, villainous and ridiculous is random and this is what both men find themselves grappling to come to terms with. The warmth of the play comes from watching these two wounded soldiers attempting to haul each other by turns to a place of safety.
There is nothing trite about the way Bully Boy engages with its subject matter, it bristles with uncomfortable truths and is so much the better for it.
I saw Sandi Toksvig afterwards and told her I liked it. I asked her what the response from veterans had been and she said it had been very good.
“A military charity was involved in the production which helped make sure I got the details right,” she said, in her very gentle conversational voice which is a surprising contrast to her broadcasting tone.
So I think it’s good. I’ve never applauded quite the same way before. Now you know. Now the writer knows. It’s on at Royal and Derngate until September 15.