50 years ago, in 1967, homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England. In 2000 it became legal to be gay and a member of the UK armed forces. In the USA, the ban on gay folk serving wasn’t fully lifted until 2011. Why do I tell you this, you may ask. Well, the reason is that during WWII it was illegal to be gay in the armed forces and, despite the desperate need for men and women to serve, LGB personnel were persecuted by the military police for being who they were. Yet, when general conscription has been announced and the military machine is desperate for manpower, it’s inconceivable that the odd gayer didn’t slip past and serve their country. Their stories were never told until now as Joseph and David Zellnik’s musical Yank! opens at the Charing Cross Theatre.
It’s 1942 and the USA has finally noticed that Europe is at war. A young man called Stu (Scott Hunter) has been called up. As he leaves, his mother (Sarah-Louise Young) presents him with a journal to record his time in the service. Stu goes off to basic training and joins his squad – ‘Charlie’ Company. As with all such groups of conscripts, the squad is made up of various types from all over the USA and very quickly, names are dispensed with and nicknames become the norm. There is redneck ‘Tennessee” (Lee Dillon-Stuart), Czechowski (Kris Marc-Joseph) from Poland, the ‘Professor’ (Benjamin Cupit), Sicilian-born, Rotelli (Bradley Judge), Seattle-born Cohen (Tom Pepper) and ‘Hollywood’ Mitch Adams (Andy Coxon). As ‘C’ company’s long-suffering training Sergeant (Waylon Jacobs) discovers quite quickly, Stu is pretty useless as a soldier. He drops his rifle and is doing badly during basic training, much to the annoyance of the rest of the squad except Mitch, who helps him. Ah yes, that brings me to another point, Stu is gay and has fallen in love with Mitch – both wrong on so many levels – except that it seems Mitch feels the same way. After basic training, Stu meets up with Artie (Chris Kiely) a photographer on army magazine ‘Yank’. The two of them hit it off immediately, particularly as Artie is, like Stu, ‘light in the loafers’. He is looking for a writer to join him getting stories for the magazine, and so the two of them form a partnership, traveling the war writing positive pieces for the consumption of other ‘real’ soldiers, leaving ‘C’ Company and Mitch behind.
So, here we go then. Let’s talk about the issues with Yank!. Well, for a pedant like me, the uniforms were slightly wrong at times. And that’s it. My one criticism because Yank! was absolutely awesome from start to finish. I’m not sure exactly where to start with praising the show, to be honest. Let’s start with the book. David Zellnik has obviously done a lot of research about the consequences of being a gay man in the US armed forces during the war, and that really comes across with the utterly compelling story of Stu and Mitch. Yank! could easily have been left as a, pardon the pun ‘straight’ play but making it into a musical is a stroke of genius. David and Joseph have made a fabulously authentic sounding 1940s musical with some really memorable songs – such as ‘Click’ and ‘Light on Your Feet’ that evoke the era perfectly.
So, we have a great book and music, what’s next? Well you need a fabulous cast and Yank! really does have a superb one. Mention has to go to Sarah-Louise Young who plays virtually all the women in the show. Everyone from a closeted lesbian soldier, to a series of sweethearts saying goodbye to their man, to radio performers and even a melodramatic film soprano. Sarah-Louise does some fast costume and personality changes and gives every character she performs a life of their own. The rest of the talented cast play multiple roles and dance a wide variety of styles brilliantly and really create a solid and impressive ensemble behind our two leads. Andy Coxon is lovely as the confused, tormented Mitch. His good looks and affable style make him an instant friend of everyone onstage and in the audience and even at his most negative, he makes Mitch human so that it’s easy to understand what motivates Mitch. The chemistry with Scott Hunter’s Stu is palpable and the two of them make a lovely couple. Finally, Scott Hunter is an absolute dream as Stu. He is vulnerable and instantly loveable as the young man trying to come to terms with his homosexuality in the worst place possible. Scott looks and sounds great in the musical numbers but also is an intense serious actor – as we see during the scenes in Act II – who managed to get a strong emotional reaction out of many of us in the audience as we went through Stu’s journey with him.
James Baker’s direction makes fantastic use of the Charing Cross stage which, while not being the biggest in the world never seemed crowded even with the entire twelve-strong cast on it performing Chris Cumming’s choreography. Victoria Hinton’s set is quite minuscule – a few scenery flats and some packing crates – but brilliantly conveys every place required for the story, especially when combined with Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and Chris Bogg’s atmospheric sound design. Finally a mention for Musical Director James Cleeve and the seven-piece band that has the perfect 1940s sound to accompany the songs and provides nice incidental music.
Yank! is a pretty perfect musical as it stands. The story is compelling, the music never puts a foot wrong – guess what I’m listening to on Spotify as I write this – and the production is just amazing on all levels. The show varies from extreme highs to horrific lows but everything fits together perfectly and, at the end, there was a real poignancy in the glimmer of hopeful light that the story ended with. It was quite poignant that I saw the show a couple of days after Pride when so many LGBT+ people were able to celebrate the freedom to be themselves in a way that Stu and Mitch were never able to. Like so many others I was on my feet at the end cheering and wiping away a tear knowing that I had just experienced something really special.
Since July 2014, I've seen and reviewed 588 shows altogether. 2017 was a fairly quiet year with a total of 132 shows visited by yours truly.
So, in the best traditions of end of the year ideas, here is my list of the top 10 shows that I've seen this year. Please remember, this is my list not anybody else's and if you don't agree with the pick, well, what can I say?
1.Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Bridewell Theatre This story of friendship and hope took two drag queens and a trans woman from Sydney to Alice Springs, in a big pink bus. Along the way, the met new friends and face rampant homophobia. SEDOS brought every element of the show together beautifully, and to a standard that you would expect to see in the West End. Sold out virtually as soon as it was announced, this was the ‘must see production of the year. 2.La Cage aux Folles, New Wimbledon Theatre This is was a touring production of a show that demonstrates the importance of family and how much a parent will s…
Southern Baptist Sissies
Above the Stag is a theatre that specialises in putting on LGBT+ shows. I’ve been there a couple of times previously and seen some very well produced and very funny plays about gay life. So, I was really looking forward to another visit last night to see their latest show, the European premiere of Southern Baptist Sissies by Del Shores.
This is the story of four people emerging from childhood and becoming adults. These boys are all from the great state of Texas – the ‘buckle’ in the bible belt – and all are regular attendees at their small town Baptist church presided over by a real old fashioned ‘wrath of God’ style preacher (Stephen Parker). The four boys are all really good friends who each bring something different to the group. So, there is preacher’s son Mark (Jason Kirk) the thinker, TJ (Daniel Klemens) the brawn, Andrew (Hugh O’Donnell) the introverted and…
A theatre show is often like a swan. Out on stage, all is serene and beautiful whilst backstage there is a hive of activity going on. There have been various shows written about life backstage at a theatre – Noises Off springs to mind, though I’ve still not got around to seeing it. However, if you would like to see life backstage during a Christmas show, then you can do no better than toodle off to the Waterloo East Theatre to see Shaun Kitchener’s play Christmas Farce.
Thirty minutes – or in theatrical parlance, The Half – before curtain up and Alice (Natalie Lester) is the only person in the Green Room of a regional theatre. The fact it is Christmas is demonstrated not only by Alice’s OTT festive jumper but also with the gaudy decorations festooning the place. These are the handiwork of back-stage worker Makenzie (Marc-Gee Finch) and, while they are a tad tacky, they do add a sort of desperate fe…