Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…

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Review: The Long Road South at King’s Head Theatre

Paul Minx was inspired to write The Long Road South in tribute to Carney, a man who worked for his¬†family in Indiana¬†for almost 15 years, and became a ‘shy second father’ to the young boy. And yet despite this close relationship, Minx knows very little about Carney’s personal life, because he was advised ‘not to pry, particularly with “the help”‘.

This contradiction is recreated in the play through a brief glimpse into the lives of the white Price family and their black ‘help’. Andre and Grace are preparing¬†to leave for Alabama to join the civil rights movement – but as Andre fights for the courage to ask for his final wages, the Price’s teenage daughter Ivy¬†tries anything to make him stay, and her mother Carol Ann heads towards a breakdown, it seems increasingly unlikely that they’ll ever be able to get away.

The Long Road South, King's Head Theatre
Photo credit: Truan Munro

A truly excellent cast, directed by Sarah Berger, draw us into the¬†complex relationships between the family members and their employees, revealing deep personal issues on both sides, where¬†nothing is quite as it seems. Andre (Cornelius Macarthy) is mild-mannered and deeply religious, but fighting an endless battle against the demons who nearly destroyed him, whilst¬†trying to be the man aspiring writer¬†Grace (Krissi Bohn) wants him to be. Ivy (Lydea Perkins) seems like a self-centred brat, until we realise she’s just seeking the attention she doesn’t get from her parents. And Carol Ann (Imogen Stubbs), far from being a bored housewife, is actually¬†a depressed alcoholic, missing her absent son and desperate for her bullying¬†husband Jake (Michael Brandon)¬†to take the pain away.

The drama created by¬†putting these five damaged individuals together is fascinating, with the Prices singled out as, while maybe not the villains, definitely¬†not the heroes of the piece. (They also get most of the laughs – of which there are many – but always at them rather than with them.) Meanwhile Andre and Grace, though¬†far from¬†perfect themselves, behave with a dignity that only serves to highlight the failings of their employers. It’s quite clear which side we’re expected to be on, and it’s pretty easy to oblige.

Photo credit: Truan Munro

Though it’s often¬†unexpectedly funny, at its heart The Long Road South, at King’s Head Theatre until 30th January, is a serious and heartfelt depiction¬†of race, religion and family values in 1960s America. Maybe it doesn’t bring any¬†startling new insights¬†to the discussion of these well-worn issues – but that’s not really the point. The play is intended to pay personal tribute to a man the writer loved but never truly got to know, and it¬†does so in fine and truly entertaining style.

Can‚Äôt see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don‚Äôt know why but I‚Äôm working on it‚Ķ ūüėČ