DON’T be misled by the title of Sandi Toksvig’s mesmerising post-war drama Bully Boy, currently running at Royal & Derngate in Northampton – I’d wrongly imagined some sort of public school stuff costume piece or a gritty exploration of modern urban state schools.
No, the education here is of the audience, taught through the story of two traumatised soldiers brought together during the investigation of a grim war crime.
Major Oscar Hadley (Anthony Andrews), a Falklands veteran, is sent by the Army to Afghanistan’s combat-zone to investigate the death of an eight-year-old civilian boy and his mother at the hands of a group of British soldiers, nicknamed ‘the Bully Boys’.
He interviews the prime suspect; pumped-up, aggressive young soldier Eddie Clark (Joshua Miles), a 20-year-old from Burnley who signed up at 16. Eddie is immature and institutionalised, showing racist indifference to the dead locals he has been sent to protect, and fiercely defensive of his fellow ‘bully boys’ who the Major implies have blamed him for the death.
Using a stripped down set (R&D on top form as always) with lighting and sound effects that literally make you jump out of your seat, the developing relationship between the two soldiers is mesmerising and incredibly moving.
Andrews, perhaps typecast through his career as the tortured toff, is on top form in what must be both a physically and mentally exhausting production, especially for a national treasure now in his 60s.
But the play is notable for the extraordinary performance of newly graduated Joshua Miles as Eddie, rolling the character through such a series of demands both emotional and physical. He is pure squaddie from head to foot and his development of the character from hateful ignorance through to tragic victim shows great talent for a young actor.
Written by comedienne and broadcasting darling Sandi Toksvig, better known for her appearances on Radio 4 and QI, Bully Boy is both deeply moving and humourous. Despite detailed research with military charities and her own partner, a psychotherapist, the story, for me, was not without faults. Several times I found myself jolted out of suspension of disbelief – “well, he’d never have spoken to him like that,” or “the Army would never have let them travel in the same vehicle”,”that’s a sports wheelchair”, and on several occasions, “where are the bloody Military Police in all this?” The initial question of the death of a child and his mother gets forgotten as sympathies switch to the mental health of the soldiers.
Nevertheless it’s an extraordinary telling of the truth about war and its consequences, and a stark expression of the issue of the ongoing mental health of generations of forces personnel.
An excellent piece of theatre again from Royal & Derngate, Bully Boy is a completely re-staged version from the first run of the play in Southampton last year, and will continue on after its Northampton run into undoubted success in London. I highly recommend you see it while it’s here, and it’s a shame it can’t be made compulsory viewing for all secondary school children. Or just everyone.
Bully Boy runs until Saturday, September 15. Tickets can be booked now by calling Box Office on 01604 624811 or visiting www.royalandderngate.co.uk.
- Make sure too that you put some pennies in the collection bucket for the Combat Stress charity, or text BBOY12 £5to 70070 to give an instant donation of a fiver to help veterans with wounded minds.