(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester on 9 November)
We live in a conflicted world and time – though there’s nothing new or unusual about that. What perhaps is new is that we are being made aware of the mental as well as physical toll which combat levies on its participants. Not to mention on their friends and families and on (often innocent) bystanders.
Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy confronts us with two soldiers. Oscar (Andrew French) is a wheelchair-confined major, investigating Eddie (Josh Collins) on behalf of the military police. A complaint has been made by Afghan villagers; it appears that a young boy was deliberately thrown into a well.
Close friends and comrades died as the effect of an improvised explosive device; Eddie is the sole surviver of the group, the Bully Boys. Bully, of course, has two distinct meanings – a jolly, dashing fellow is one. The other denotes someone who preys on weaker people. It is up to Oscar to establish just which one is significant in this context.
Dan Shearer’s production in the refurbished Mercury Studio Theatre has the audience steeply banked overlooking a wide but shallow acting area. Designer James Cotterill frames the action with dun-coloured fencing; both actors wear sand-camouflage combat gear. Rebecca Applin’s eerie music and Steve Mayo’s atmospheric soundscape drift across the action.
Of the two performers, it is Collins as the sparky, perky Eddie who has perhaps the easier task. he makes it apparent from the start that this is a façade, a mask which has become second nature; what is behind it is too raw for exposure. The British “stiff upper lip” propensity can conceal irremediable damage.
French plays a more complicated character; war hero (from the Falklands campaign), seeker after truth or a man in retreat from himself and his own past? He shows us someone for whom a desk-job and a wheelchair are no true compensation for what he has forfeited. In his own way, he too is engaged in a fight to survive.
Bully Boy runs at the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester until 21 November.