“Issued in 1942 by the American War Office, the pamphlet Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain aimed to prepare GIs for their new home and diffuse Nazi propaganda attempts to split the Allies asunder.”
Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? As differences in language and customs have long provided grist for wry observance, I hoped this would follow suit. Wartime uprooting; loneliness and fear might also evoke pathos. Unfortunately, what could’ve been sharp humor is reduced with few exceptions to low common denominator including bullying audience participation. Sympathy for servicemen is eschewed.
Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard) engages patrons in the theater’s bar area before performance. He’s straight arrow sincere and looks like something out of a classic 1940s film. The thespian’s best moments onstage are Schultz’s earnest, early attempts to correct ignorance and those playing mousy, middle-aged British women.
We, The Mighty Eighth Air Force, are in a Briefing Room for orientation. Commanding officer Colonel Atwood (Dan March) addresses us. Names having been noted during earlier contact, some audience members are called out/admonished for rowdy behavior the night before. Atwood also answers questions: “Yes, we do expect you to sleep on straw mattresses. If it was good enough for the baby Jesus, it’s good enough for your sweet cheeks.”
March couldn’t be more over the top. From the fake gravel in his voice to windbag stupidity including vast mispronunciation of the simplest words, he’s simply annoying throughout. This actor’s single, solid parentheses in the piece is playing Hitler in a Saturday Night Live puppet sketch stuck without explanation in the middle of narrative. (The puppets are clever, the skit a few minutes of effective deadpan humor.)
As Major Gibbons sent by Joint Allied Command, Matt Sheahan, the third member of this collaboration, attempts to channel Terry Thomas. Alas, he only skirts real silliness. Gibbon’s explanation of British currency, however, is a well written, if too lengthy sample of droll, impenetrable facts.
Gibbons and Atwood hurl unfunny insults. The colonel is also widely bigoted. Buried in the quagmire are bona fide considerations. The division (audience) is ordered to stand, call back, and sometimes individually respond. At the end, spoiler alert, in an effort to reconcile differences in front of the visiting Churchill (no, we don’t see him), everyone is asked to join a Morris Dance (we’re instructed) to the music of Benny Goodman, which is both clever and funny. Most do.
This is an if only production.
Jon McLeod’s Sound Design includes wonderful WWII classics from both sides of the pond and some swell background atmosphere.
Martin Thomas’ Sets and Costumes are excellent.
Photos by Lidia Crisafulli
Opening: James Millard and Dan March
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain
Adapted with kind permission from the Bodleian Library’s publication “Instructions for American Servicemen, 1942”
Written and Performed by Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan
Written and Directed by John Walton
Through May 12, 2019