Going to a theatre for the first time is exciting enough, but going to a totally newly refurbished theatre to see its first production is even more exciting. This is exactly what happened on Monday evening as I went to see Bully Boy, the first production in the Mercury Theatre’s new studio space.
Sandi Toksvig’s play focuses on the effects of war – both mental and physical – on two soldiers: Eddie, who is under investigation for an incident which occurred at war, and Oscar, a wheelchair-bound senior officer carrying out the aforementioned investigation. Toksvig’s script clearly comes from an anti-war perspective – she describes herself as a pacifist and questions the way our armed forces are treated both in conflict and upon their return home. Though this is a challenging subject, at times the play did feel like it was intentionally trying to shock you for the sake of shocking you rather than to add depth to the characters or another layer to the plot. That being said, there were some moments of light comedy that really did help to gain more of an insight into both Eddie and Oscar and these were the moments in which I felt more engaged with the play and the struggles of the two characters.
As a person who actively avoids audience participation like the plague, finding out I was in Row A of the theatre was slightly concerning. Luckily I managed to make it through and I actually think this really added to the intense drama of the piece (as I awkwardly managed to avoid eye contact with the actors). Being so close to the stage gave me the chance to admire the skill of actors Josh Collins (Eddie) and Andrew French (Oscar). French particularly stood out through the way in which he fully immersed himself into the physical disability of his character and the mental impact this has caused.
To me the most impressive element of this production came from the expert direction and set design. Initially appearing to just be an army base, it was transformed into a whole range of scenarios (even including an aeroplane) through the use of lighting and sound. The attention to detail in the set was also impressive, especially the use of sand and pebbles on the floor of the stage which created a realistic and atmospheric sound as the characters moved across it.
The Mercury’s new studio theatre is definitely one of the nicest I’ve visited – occasionally smaller places can get a bit overlooked in terms of care and attention (I’ve sat in at least one damp seat and a whole range of extreme temperatures). However, the Mercury’s offering is a pleasant exception, with comfortable seats, good air-con and exemplary legroom in the front row (though you are basically sitting on the stage!). I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do next with this space – it gives the Mercury a great chance to experiment with more risky types of production that might not fit so well to the larger stage.
Bully Boy is playing at the Mercury Theatre until 21st November.