It’s not every day a new theatre opens in London. In fact, St James’ Theatre is the first new theatre in London in 30 years. On the 18th September, deep in Victoria, trumpeters played fanfares and a brass band sent the audience on their way, subtly proclaiming the theatre ready for business. It’s hard to judge from its opening night, but the theatre has excellent potential. The bar and restaurant are decent, its 170-seat studio stages comedy or cabaret- although this wasn’t open when I went on the 18th. The main event, its 300-seat theatre is delightfully intimate; as an audience member it’s easy to be drawn in. It’s slightly too expensive, but hopefully when the theatre finds its feet the prices will fall. What it lacks is the feel of somewhere like the Menier Chocolate Factory: the restaurant of the Menier is a nice side note to the stage. Where St James’ Theatre is intimate, the Menier is personal.
But a theatre is only a building with a stage: it’s what happens on that stage that matters, be it the Bristol Theatre Royal (at 246 years old this year, England’s oldest theatre) or St James’. For David Gilmore, the man behind the theatre, the toughest choice must have been picking his opening season. At the very least, he was slightly leftfield in his selection. It varies from jazz evenings to a verbatim piece about the Titanic via a new musical from the man behind ‘Les Mis’. The opening play is a powerful two-hander on the psychological effects of warfare. The two nearest theatres house ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Wicked’. I imagine St James’ Theatre will be a more refined and risky place. Time will tell.
The opening play is ‘Bully Boy’, the first play (one musical permitting) by Sandi Toksvig. Don’t let that deceive you – though best known for The News Quiz, she’s a serious novelist and now a serious playwright too. Following an act of violence by soldiers in the Middle East, we see, through a wheelchair-bound Falklands veteran and a mentally deteriorating young private, the long-term effects of warfare, with both soldiers very different casualties. As they get closer outside of the army, we see them without their military personas: not battle-hardened fighters but vulnerable souls. Tragically we realise just how vulnerable war has made them.
It’s an interesting play, mostly in a positive way. It’s punchy. It’s striking. It’s subtler than you’d expect. There are issues: the victim of the initial violence (perhaps intentionally, but distractingly noticeably) gets ignored – but the two characters are constantly believable, the drama gripping and her points intelligently made. The statistics she incorporates – more soldiers committed suicide after the Falklands than died in Argentina, for example – never feel incongruous. She engages the emotions without manipulating them.
Two-handers rest on the strength of their performances, and these performances are extremely strong. Anthony Andrews, of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ fame and who recently brought vigour and charm to a scintillating Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady’ at the BBC Proms, delivers another amazingly judged performance as the veteran Major Oscar Hadley. His stillness imparts underlying sadness, and his eruptions are striking. Joshua Miles is fantastic as the troubled young soldier Eddie. Though only his second stage role and his seventh role of any kind, stage veterans would envy his performance, with subdued violence and suppressed emotions showing a shell of a man. This pair iron out any creases in the play: one introverted, one incendiary.
‘Bully Boy’ is far from perfect, but it’s convincing and compelling. Toksvig is an admirable playwright. Were she unknown and this her debut, she’d be one to watch – that she’s an established comedienne shouldn’t diminish that. Though rough around the edges, it’s worth seeing, if only for its incredible acting. If St James’s Theatre ends up a minor theatre, this will be a nice footnote to a London charging forwards theatrically. If St James’ Theatre ends up a major theatre, this will be a worthy opening. On 18th September 2013, we’ll see.