Inspired by the handbook issued to American Servicemen stationed to the UK during the second world, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a war time romp through national stereotypes. We have the brash Americans, stuttering pompous Brits and comically camp Germans. If only there was a painting of the ‘Madonna With Enormous Boobies’ and it could well be a spin off from ‘Allo ‘Allo!
Fol Espoir and the sketch-comedy trio of the Real MacGuffins (Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan) do a solid job of landing the jokes, though when many of them have been the mainstay, some may even say cliché, of British comedy from the 1940s to the 90s it’s very hard to make them feel fresh. This is perhaps one of the reasons the show failed to gain the momentum it needed. You could sense it was there, and that with the right energy it could gain that freewheeling sense of chaos that it needed. But it never quite managed to tip over into that place where both cast and audience are being dragged along by the anarchic energy of the show itself. It always felt like the cast was pushing the show along not vice versa.
When the show worked it was very entertaining and director John Walton and the rest of the team should takes credit for some notable moments of success in the production. The audience interaction at the top of the show was brilliantly carried out by James Millard as the American Recreation officer, and using actual audience names to create a sense of immersion was brilliantly done. The food section in the second half, as Dan March’s Colonel sampled some ersatz delicacies, touched on the anarchic energy that should have flowed throughout. While The Glen Miller, Morris Dancing mashup was great fun indeed.
But the failure of the show to develop that critical mass of energy it needed meant little inconsistencies of staging really showed up. Were mimed objects real to the characters? Were the cast in on the joke at a meta-level, or were they meant to always be in character? What was the relationship in general between the cast, the main characters they played and the characters they played in the role-plays within a play. Had the energy been right none of this would have mattered, we would just have been carried along with it, but as it was I found myself annoyed that the theatrical rules kept on changing throughout the show.
Leaving all this aside however, my concern goes a little deeper than the production: the content of the show itself made me feel deeply uncomfortable. It was steeped in the easy national stereotypes, and rose tinted fog of nostalgia, that saw 17.5 million UK citizens vote to leave the EU last year. I found sitting and watching three men perform the kind of comedy Nazi routines our parents used to watch on telly has taken on a wholly new and unpleasant political resonance post Brexit.
I dare say this show does speak to those people who look back to our past and want to return there, but what does it say to modern Britain? To the deeply divided nation we are now? To a world where Donald Trump is in charge of the US and Angela Merkel is the defacto leader of the free world? Is England really so devoid of a future that we can only find enjoyment in its past?
Ultimately it seems to me that all art has two options. It can question accepted wisdom, stereotypes and the status quo, and in so doing be a progressive force for change. Or it can fail to question them, offer entertaining distractions, reinforce our prejudices and, as a result, work as a reactionary and regressive force in society. Sadly I felt that Instructions for American Servicemen In Britain does the latter. So while the show was undoubtably an entertaining romp, and the older audience members clearly enjoyed themselves, I can’t help feeling that it is symptomatic of a lot that is wrong with Brexit Britain.
Created by Dan March, Jim Millard, Matt Sheahan.
and John Walton
Directed by John Walton
Set and Costume by Martin Thomas
Sound by Jon McLeod
Movement by Sam Fogell
Accent support by Stacey Jenson
Writing support by Freddie Machin
Performed by Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt SheahanF
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is at Jermyn Street Theatre Form Mon, 3rd – Sat, 29th July 2017
£22.00/£20.00 concessions. Students (Under 26 ID req) £15.00