A rare foray into serious drama for author and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, Bully Boy, is set within a British army unit overseas in the middle of a contemporary military occupation. Major Oscar Hadley (Anthony Andrews) is sent to the frontline to investigate allegations of misconduct by British army soldiers and has to interrogate young squaddie Eddie Clark (Joshua Miles). It becomes apparent that the rules of engagement can shift and definitions of what makes a hero can be fluid in situations where soldiers are put under enormous physical and mental pressure.
Shocking - in part - harrowing and enlightening, Bully Boy is a million miles away from the work Sandi Toksvig is best known for, but is still full of her familiar razor sharp witty one-liners, and intelligent humour which skilfully puncture the mood just when the drama gets too intense to bear. This is a realistic depiction of just how young humans, barely more than children, get by in the most unimaginable conditions, and most particularly the long term effect that it can have on their young minds.
Told in a series of tightly scripted episodes, directed by the Nuffield Theatre’s own Patrick Sandford, we learn firstly of a shocking incident where a young mother is shot, and her son thrown to his death in the heat of insurgency, and the Major and young squaddie are at opposite sides of the argument. But, literally thrown together after a deadly ambush whilst being transported back from ‘the front line’, the two forge an unlikely friendship, and the older man begins to share some of his own war time experiences.
As the Major, seasoned actor Anthony Andrews is superb, with just enough ‘stiff upper lip’ and dogged establishment mentality to make his later emotional descent genuinely surprising and believable. It is hard to believe that this marks young Joshua Miles’ professional debut in the theatre, as his performance as Eddie is electrifying, with every word and action perfectly drawn. The chemistry and comradery between both actors is tangible, and the powerful, emotionally charged performance richly deserves the spontaneous and unexpected standing ovation it received on press night at least.
As is often the case with intense ‘two-handers’, Bully Boy is presented in a single 90 minute act, but in my opinion could easily stand, and deserves, to be expanded into a full length piece. So economical is the narrative that at times, when you are drawn deeply into the situation, the jolt forward to the next episode is frustrating and leaves you wanting to know more. Indeed just a few more lines of dialogue would perhaps help explain and make the developing friendship between two polar opposites more credible. But, Ms Toksvig sets out to open our eyes and encourage us to want us to know more, and in that it works exceptionally well.
Let us hope that we see more of Bully Boy and of the incomparably Sandi Toksvig’s evident skill in serious drama. And watch out for more from the extraordinary Joshua Miles who – on the basis of his performance here – is destined for great things.