Yank! A World War II Love Story - Charing Cross Theatre
Ardent feminists fervently detest Yank! A World War II Love Story, whether they have even seen it or not, mostly because of the emphasis on the struggle of certain male characters, referred to by the US Army hierarchy at the time of the Second World War as ‘fags’. “What about the struggles women continue to endure every day? Why is this yet another show about the men?” they cry, coupled with their usual expletive-ridden terseness. Their loss, and their narrow-mindedness. Stu (Scott Hunter) is court-marshalled for writing about homosexual experiences in a journal: the authorities had seized the said journal – a notebook, for the purposes of clarification – but had no concrete evidence of any sexual encounters taking place, so Stu is arrested for what he could be arrested for. This makes for a longer show than would it otherwise have been if he were caught in the act: he, and his lover Mitch (Andy Coxon), would have been shot dead.
In the end, Stu’s life ends prematurely anyway, for reasons I won’t reveal here. That his story is told at all, given the suppression (in more ways than one) of homosexual conduct in the US armed forces, comes about as a result of the narrator (also Scott Hunter), living in the modern era, purchasing the book from a charity shop. Interestingly, the ban on homosexuals serving in the US armed forces continued until the Obama Administration repealed the previous ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, introduced by the Clinton Administration. Only since September 2011 has it been possible to serve in the US military as an openly LGBT person, and now the ‘T’ has been withdrawn under the Trump Administration. At the time of writing, whether every transsexual currently in the US military will be court-marshalled remains to be seen.
I read with interest that Neil Genzlinger, reviewing for The New York Times in February 2010, finds the first act ‘delightful’ but the second ‘muddled’. My own experience was the opposite, though of course I saw a completely different production, so a completely different conclusion hardly constitutes an outlier. Stu enters base camp at the age of 18 but, partly because of his physique, he’s not up to scratch, and after meeting Artie (Chris Kiely), who works for Yank! Magazine (like Hello! Magazine but for armed forces personnel), Stu is transferred to the publication’s editorial staff.
Approaching this story from an early twenty-first century perspective, I found the first half had little to offer in terms of a compelling storyline. Some people went to ‘the front’. That’s what happens in wartime. Some people fell in love. That happens all the time. Is it a generational thing? My own puritanical religious upbringing would agree with the man in the row behind me at the performance I attended, who openly muttered, “Disgusting,” at the sight of Stu and Mitch biting each other’s faces off. But then my puritanical upbringing told me that acting is a sin, because a person who is an actor is playing the role of someone other than themselves, that is, the person God made them to be. To ‘be’ someone else is messing with the order of creation. It is almost superfluous to add that I have long forsaken such philosophies.
This is a cast that works hard – Scott Hunter was perspiring through his clothes towards the end of the second half, and not just because the venue was too warm, albeit being a sunny August Saturday matinee. The 12-strong company, particularly in the full ensemble musical numbers, such as the title track, perform with gusto. As do the band, deftly led by James Cleeve. If I hadn’t known any better I would have believed that Sarge (Waylon Jacobs) really was putting ‘The Squad’ through their paces and preparing them for war. This production happened to be topical on its opening night, which took place the day after the closing celebration of the London Pride 2017 weekend.
The second half, in which the show feels like a proper musical, as opposed to the first where the narrative seemed to be just going through the motions, has the soaring melody of ‘Just True’ and the showstopping and unifying ‘Your Squad is Your Squad’. The choreography (Chris Cuming) in a relatively small stage space is delightful. It is telling, however, that the grittiest moment of all, where the Interrogator (Tom Pepper), well, interrogates Stu, is devoid of song and dance altogether. I also wish to mention Sarah-Louise Young and her many roles, merely listed in the programmes as ‘Louise/Females’; here I join the feminists in screaming for more detail than that. She is versatility personified. And the show overall is very much a charming and poignant production.
Booking to 19 August 2017 at the Charing Cross Theatre.
Photo credit: Richard Goldschmidt