Bully Boy (review)

Joshua Miles and Anthony Andrews in Bully Boy. Photo by Mike Eddowes.
Joshua Miles and Anthony Andrews in Bully Boy. Photo by Mike Eddowes.
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There is always a public perception in a war that the British forces (and, indeed, the Americans) are the good guys, the ones wearing the white Stetsons who stand for truth, justice and freedom.

Only sometimes war makes sinners out of the most decent of men.

Sandy Toksvig’s compelling new drama, Bully Boy, which has opened at the Royal & Derngate ahead of a London release, is a confrontational piece, set in war-torn Afghanistan, between two men, one a boy soldier from Burnley who is accused of killing an eight-year-old boy, and a wheelchair-bound major sent to investigate the crime.

On the surface these two soldiers are a world apart. The public-school educated Major Oscar Hadley lost the use of his legs during an incident in the Falklands War while the hot-wired Private Eddie Clark left school with no qualifications at the tender age of 16 and thought he might as well enlist.

He is now a veteran of 20 who has honed his military skills playing Call of Duty rather than on army exercises. He is a child expected to do a man’s job in a war zone where nothing is black and white.

As the play unfolds we learn a lot about both men, the traumas of war, the importance of friendship, and modern day warfare. Toksvig also takes the opportunity to politicise a lot of both character’s dialogue with a personal attack on the futility of war. These outbursts will either irritate you or find sympathy depending on your own views.

Eddie is a “Bully Boy” a member of a squad who have bonded, through love and a mutual desire for survival, and his defence of their tactics during their tour of duty, is paramount. These brothers-in-arms would do anything to remain together, anything….

It is an extraordinarily moving piece played with conviction by two actors, like their characters, at either end of their careers.

Fresh out of drama school Joshua Miles is pumped up with fear and adrenalin as Eddie. He’s always on the move, prowling around the tiny Royal stage as though keeping one eye out for the enemy. Miles is mesmerising as the young recruit who, we discover, is himself a casualty of war and who even wins a spell in the celebrated Priory Clinic to receive treatment for stress.

Seasoned stage and screen actor Anthony Andrews, effortlessly inhabits a military uniform. He is all reserve, restraint and protocol, until we learn that he is as much a victim from his war as young Eddie is from today’s skirmishes.

It’s a shame that people still associate Andrews with Brideshead Revisited because he is a polished stage actor who has recently taken on a series of meaty establishment figures with great success. He lends gravitas to a part which, in this case, perfectly counterbalances the raw emotional performance of his fresh-faced co-star.

This two-hander is packed with speeches and verbal skirmishes as the two men square up to each other. There’s no room for additional characters.

To bring the story bang up-to-date the dialogue included radio reports from Tuesday’s news. It doesn’t matter if the war was Great, or against Hitler, the Argentinians or, as Eddie calls them “the ragheads”. War is war and there’s no clear winner or good guys.

It doesn’t matter how you vote this blistering and emotional drama that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

Bully Boy plays at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until September 15. For tickets call the box office 01604 624811.

ANNE COX