Less than 24 hours after Britain remembered its war dead, and two days before the official Day of Remembrance, Colchester’s Mercury Theatre relaunched its studio theatre with a play that slams the futility of politically motivated conflict.
Sandy Toksvig’sBully Boy is a savage indictment of governments who send their young people into battle to make a point, flex their muscles or protect commercial interests.
It’s a powerful and thought-provoking drama, now playing in one of England’s oldest garrison towns, but I wonder how it sits with the families of those who have either died in recent skirmishes in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan or post deployment?
The faces of so many brave young men and women have filled our national newspapers yet none were conscripted. They went into the forces for a number of reasons, but, one assumes, the greatest was their fierce loyalty to their country.
Toksvig’s stance could well anger them with its suggestion that the death of their children was pointless and, certainly, needless. War, what were they fighting for?
The playwright has obviously done her research and, at times the drama comes across as a case study with all symptoms ticked off as it progresses to its ultimate and tragic conclusion.
This two-hander, part of the successful Made in Colchester canon, probes a particularly shameful incident that occurred in Afghanistan yet also explores far deeper themes of the politics of war and the services’ treatment of personnel .
Wheelchair-bound Major Oscar Hadley (Andrew French) has been sent out to interview the Bully Boys, a unit of young hotheads, who were involved in the death of an eight-year-old who was thrown down a well.
“He was a raghead with a grenade” shouts Private Eddie Clark who is incensed that he’s being quizzed when his life is endangered, on a daily basis, by women and children insurgents.
On their way to the airport a landmine explodes and most of the unit are incinerated – with the exception of Clark who is with Hadley in a different vehicle.
Now, carrying the guilt of losing his mates, Clark begins to fall apart. Is he culpable for the crime? Furthermore, is it that cut and dried?
Clark, now away from Camp Bastion, is used by the playwright as a metaphor for thousands of returning soldiers who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress, depression, and the rest. The mental scars often run so deep that their future is not only bleak but frequently short-lived.
Josh Collins, as Eddie, makes an exemplary and very credible young soldier. The squaddie is short-tempered, loyal to his mates, explosive, angry and abusive and Josh displays every emotion with full-on conviction.
There’s a moment when he attempts to throttle his superior and, I swear, a gasping French was on the verge of passing out. Realism at its finest.
Here is a boy who spends his down-time killing baddies in computer games and dreams of returning to his home in Burnley, to his young girlfriend and climbing Pendle Hill to breath in the air and admire the views.
Later we learn of Clark’s shocking treatment at the hands of doctors and, all the while, we have to remember that he’s just 20.
I’m not so sure French, as Oscar, has the military bearing that comes with his rank. His salute and behaviour are sloppy and undisciplined. But he’s haunted by war every bit as much as Clark (although for him it was the Falklands).
Both are disillusioned and carry a measure of guilt. Perhaps that’s his excuse. Certainly his physicality is pushed to the limit as he grunts and grimaces with pain.
PTSD can be debilitating and, at worse, a silent killer, but there is, however it is painted in Bully Boy, help out there. Help For Heroes has been astonishing in its support of the services.
And Google ‘Bravo 22 Company – The Royal British Legion’s Recovery Through Theatre programme’ and see the incredible work being done getting wounded services personnel involved in the arts.
It started with the acclaimed and deeply moving stage play, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, and follow-up productions have played in Aylesbury and, this December, at Theatre Royal, Plymouth.
Bully Boy is heartfelt, traumatic, profound, brave and compelling.
Playing in the Mercury Theatre Studio until November 21.
Bully Boy, in Colchester’s Mercury Theatre Studio, is heartfelt, traumatic, profound, brave and compelling.