With this accomplished inaugural show, the newly-opened St James Theatre is showing itself to be a safe pair of hands for more conservative off-West End audiences.
In Sandi Toksvig's 'Bully Boy', Major Oscar Hadley is brought in to interrogate Private Eddie Clark over the fatal throwing of an Arab boy down a well. But after an explosion makes the two men emotionally interdependent, the situation becomes tragically clouded as we see both are suffering from combat stress.
'Bully Boy' is an empathic exploration of the mental cost of war, driven by a desire to confront difficult subjects. One of our most beloved polymaths, Toksvig is a skilled writer. But in her eagerness to understand each man's damaged perspective she is unable to do justice to Clark's victim and those like him. As such, this is a very western-centred account, in which disquieting questions about institutional cover-ups are glossed over.
Patrick Sandford's production is as assured as it is expensive. Anthony Andrews is plummy perfection as Hadley whilst Joshua Miles's Burnley-born Clark is a skeleton of explosive energy. The backdrop is stylised, but John Leonard's realistic sound design shocks us out of any complacency.
'Bully Boy' firmly places combat stress in the spotlight. But Toksvig's heartfelt play and Sandford's polished staging are in danger of sending a well-heeled audience out with their liberal consciences safely appeased, never truly tested.
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Great performances in an absorbing and sometimes harrowing play Excellence comes as standard with Sandi Toksvig, and this play combines research and acute sensitivity as it portrays the traumatising effect of army life at what now passes as the front lines of active combat. Anthony Andrews is excellent as an army major disabled during the Falklands war, while Joshua Miles is the most exciting new actor to hit the London stage since Rupeet Everett. What a flying start for the new St James Theatre; don't miss it.