Guest post from Oliver Wake
Named after a pamphlet issued to US troops stationed in the UK during the Second World War, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain finds its humour in the absurdities of parochial English village life and “two countries separated by a common language”, as the saying goes. It’s not a new subject for drama, but I doubt it’s ever been done with such hilarity. This ensemble comedy from the Fol Espoir (‘a foolish hope’) theatre company is written by its three-man cast of Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, and its director John Walton, with a small degree of improvisation in evidence.
Taking the form of a series of briefings to the US troops – that’s us, the audience – and including cross dressing, slapstick and audience interaction, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is less a conventional play, more a pantomime for adults. The script is witty, if unoriginal at times. We’ve all heard the jokes about British cooking, repressed Englishmen and brash, ignorant Americans before. Yet, it is performed with such gusto and pace that any such minor quibbles are easily forgiven.
For me, the first act is the better of the two. Concentrating on the initial antagonisms and culture shock between the British and the Americans, the humour comes from wordplay and misunderstandings. A particular highlight is one character’s lecture on Britain’s pre-decimal currency and system of coinage, fully milking the absurdity of this “simple” scheme of denominations divisible by 12 and named coins.
The second act relocates the action from the US camp to the nearby village as preparations are made for a visit by Churchill. Here the humour becomes broader and more physical and the audience participation is increased from the limited dialogue with the actors of the first half. At one point the audience is simply required to bowl balls of paper onto the stage, but towards the end we are all issued with handkerchiefs and led in a display of Morris dancing, which felt it may be taking the audience involvement a little too far.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is often laugh-out-loud funny, and never short of engaging and entertaining. It comes highly recommended for anyone in need of a good chuckle, though you may want to take a back-row seat if audience participation makes you uncomfortable.