Sunday, August 13, 2017

YANK! at Charing Cross Theatre - Over There, Over Here, Over Done

So here we are in August, and I have seen four - count 'em - four musicals, and none have been totally successful - I am banking everything now on the National Theatre's FOLLIES to kick-start the musical joy this year.  So director Dominic Cooke... DON'T fuck it up.

But first there is YANK! (nice to see the eternal exclamation mark for musicals with one-word titles still making it's presence felt) which has opened at Thom Southerland's Charing Cross Theatre.  I had high hopes when I heard that he was going to be this dodgy theatre's artistic director but this year has been a bit 'meh', hopefully the upcoming revival of Lloyd Webber's THE WOMAN IN WHITE might give it a shot in the arm.

Sadly I have to report that there is nothing in the show to match the ironic humour of the title in this musical about two soldiers finding love among the US army ranks in WWII.  It is very an odd show, it's heart is resolutely on it's sleeve but that is attached to off-the-shoulder earnestness.  Even when the show takes a sudden detour into a sense-deprivation interrogation of one of the lovers you just know you are not far away from a soupy ballad with lyrics worthy of Hallmark Cards.

The show, a transfer from Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre, is hampered by it's structure; it starts with a young narrator talking about a diary he picked up in an antique shop and the same actor then plays Stu - irksomely called Stuey through most of the show - who is drafted into the army in 1943.  Pitched into the bullying, testosterone-filled atmosphere of the Basic Training camp, Stu keeps his head down but finds gay men still thriving - most notably in the office admin where three typists call each other by the "Gone With The Wind" names of Scarlett, Melanie and India.  What... no one wanted Mammy?

Here he meets Mitch, a ruffty-tuffty fellow soldier who Stu falls for after a snatched snog in a train berth but their friendship ruffles feathers within Charlie Company.  However Stu's life takes an upturn when he meets Artie, a photographer for the Army magazine YANK!, who gets him moved to be his assistant.  In a bizarre-but-well choreographed number, Chris Kiely as Artie leads the troop in a lengthy tap routine called "Click" which equates tapping with sex.

It's that kind of show, Stu and Mitch are the good gays because they have a 'relationship', Artie is the snake-in-the-grass because he has arbitrary sex.  Sadly book-writer David Zellnik cannot make the couple interesting; Stu is too passive (no pun intended) to be interesting and Mitch is just a cypher - he loves Stu so they can sing a ballad, he goes cold on Stu so they can sing a conflict song.  As I said earlier, the show has a real stop-start feel to it as Stu narrates each scene-change.

Artie and Stu's relationship founders when Stu puts them in harm's way by following his beloved to the battle front but the couple are betrayed to the authorities and Stu's diary implicates him and he is jailed.  On his release, they meet one more time and Stu's long-dreamt future is shattered forever...

The performances were all very committed but the two stand-outs were Chris Kiely as Artie and Sarah-Louise Young in the potentially sticky role of every woman in the story but she was huge fun singing in a variety of styles and even had the chance to give a good individual performance as Louise, a closeted lesbian who knows that silence is the best way to progress up the army career ladder.

The show was certainly tightly directed by James Baker and well-lit by Aaron J Dootson and Chris Cuming made the most of the stage space for his choreography.  The score by Joseph and David Zellnik was a curiosity: they stated they wanted to write the musical Rodgers and Hammerstein never got to write which is pitching it a bit high but their score certainly has the retro sound of 1950s musicals.  The trouble is because of that it comes across as pastiche and not it's own entity.

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