Best new play. Best first play. Best first, new play in a brand-new London theatre. It’s hard to say in which category Sandi Toksvig may get an Olivier nomination for Bully Boy, but its premiere at the St James Theatre is undeniably exciting.

Persons who have been residing on Pluto, or at least on the darker side where Radio 4 reception is patchy, may be unfamiliar with the work of Ms. Toksvig: host of The News Quiz, diminutive Dane and now mellifluously more-English-than-the-English comedienne, children’s author, round-Britain sailor, university chancellor, tireless compere of charity comedy nights and – Clare Balding’s Olympian moment in the spotlight aside – Britain’s favourite lesbian. And now, plausible pacifist.

Set in an indeterminately sandy theatre of war, although probably Afghanistan for recent resonance, Bully Boy tracks the military police’s investigation into an incident where a British platoon is spooked into killing a native woman by local insurgents, and then reacts to the possibility of a small boy holding a grenade by throwing him down a well. Revealing this is giving nothing of the plot away, because these events happen in the opening minutes of the play – in fact, the squaddie Joshua Miles’ first line asks, “Is this about the boy, or the whole thing?”

Miles’s is an extraordinary debut: he has only recently graduated from Guildhall and gives a performance by turns taut, tortured, defensive and remorseful. Never does he disappoint. The character he plays comes from Burnley, and either he’s a native Lancastrian or an accomplished mimic, since his accent is accurate to within a few streets.

Playing the investigating officer, Anthony Andrews is also on peak form, blending his patrician heritage in Brideshead Revisited and costume dramas with a convincingly detailed and accurate observation of the career soldier. He plays a Falklands veteran in a modern lightweight wheelchair which he commands so expertly, some members of the audience thought his injuries were genuine.

For a two-hander, the piece is driven with remarkable pace under Patrick Sandford’s polished and powerful direction, and production values are immaculate: the elegant, minimally grey set by Simon Higlett is beautifully lit with projections by James Whiteside, and John Leonard’s sound design is sufficiently realistic to be downright scary.

It’s hard to find faults and those which exist are minor: perhaps Andrews puts his glasses on and off one too many times when starting a speech, or perhaps the relationship between officer and man becomes momentarily too intimate for the demarcations between ranks in the British Army, and perhaps the plot is just a little circular, but this is a play you would, and should, recommend to any friend.

The midweek audience gave a long standing ovation.  That’s extremely rare for a straight play, even rarer still outside the West End, and should commend it beyond anything I can add.

Date reviewed: Monday 1st October 2012
Image © Mike Eddowes

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.