“An ethereal but disillusioned fairytale grounded in historical reality”

Katie Sayer highly recommends 'Yank!', a new musical about gay subculture in the US military during WW2

Photo credit: Claire Bilyard

The Charing Cross Theatre is an odd little venue, hidden between Embankment and Charing Cross station, and tucked underneath the Hungerford Bridge. What was once a Victorian music hall has been converted into a theatre with a capacity of 265, and with the atmospheric rumble of trains overhead every so often, the venue is defined by an intimacy that could make the wrong production feel claustrophobic. For Yank!, however, the venue could not be more perfect, and the blend of intimacy and anticipation, almost redolent of an air raid shelter, feeds in perfectly to two hours of musical extravaganza that is a lot more victory-on-the-home-front than blitz-spirit.

Written by brothers David and Joseph Zellnik, Yank! tells the story of Stu, an 18-year-old conscript who joins the war effort in 1943, falling in love with one of his comrades, Mitch, before being taken on as a reporter for Yank magazine (the real military paper released weekly throughout the war). After travelling around various US military bases as a journalist, Stu hears that his company have been sent to the frontline as part of the now-infamous Big Push, and opts to return to them, reconciling with Mitch and formulating an American-Dream style plan for after the war that is as tragic as it is endearing. After being arrested for suspected homosexuality, Stu is faced with a choice between military prison and a return to the front line himself, and in true romantic tradition, Stu opts to join his lover.

There is definitely a strong tonal disjunct between the two halves of the play. The first half has all the makings of a romantic comedy, albeit one that is set in the midst of the war effort, as we watch Mitch and Stu fall in love, in a romantic arc that could belong to any standard heteronormative Hollywood affair. Andy Coxon’s brooding, Aidan Turner-esque Mitch is the perfect complement to Scott Hunter’s high-pitched nervousness as new recruit Stu, and the chemistry between the two actors is undeniable. It is clear to see why both have been nominated for Offie awards for Best Male Actor. When combined with a number of light-hearted show tunes, this makes for a first half that is charmingly optimistic, characterised by its warmth and humour.

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Consequently, the grittier second half is all the more powerful for being so unexpected. Stu’s entirely spoken monologue as he faces the front line alone on stage is driven home by its dissonant departure from the Glee-esque tone of the first half, and the use of sound and light to emulate a war zone makes phenomenal use of the intimate space. If the first half, with its romantic duets and warm brand of humour, is akin to a rom-com, then the second half is a more traditional, poignant war drama. The move from a From Here to Eternity vibe to a Saving Private Ryan feel, gives us the impression that what could have been a fairytale has been grounded in a sad historical reality.

Arguably, this is the intended effect. The promotional posters read that ‘some stories didn’t make it into the history books’, and the sense we get that Yank! is a love story that will always be slightly ethereal is reinforced thematically in the play. The thriving gay scene in the Pacific Islands where Stu is stationed is definitively an underground venture, defined by secret toilet codes and initials in diaries that act as Stu’s only material reminders of the existence of this subculture. Perhaps it is merely contextual awareness from the audience, reinforced by the number of references to times and dates that would ring alarm bells from any history students, but we constantly get the feeling that Stu’s contented existence is teetering on the edge of a volcano, awaiting an inevitable ending.

The impression we get that Yank! is akin to a disillusioned fairy-tale is also reinforced by the way the narrative is framed. The opening scene is set in the modern day, with Scott Hunter playing the 21st century man who finds Stu’s diary in a junk shop and reads it aloud, before we enter properly into the narrative with Hunter as Stu. This structure imbues the production with a sense of self-awareness – the narrator describes how he found “Remembering You”, the big number and defining refrain of Yank! on iTunes – and this prevails throughout the script, with much comic relief coming from a self-aware pastiche of gay stereotypes.

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What the Zellnik brothers have achieved with Yank! is an important and inspiring musical that gives a voice to the muted gay subculture in the US military during WW2. This original and self-empowered script is brought to life by James Baker’s vivid direction, with Chris Cuming’s excellent choreography particularly standing out. It is also impressive that the cast are as adept at dancing as they are at acting and singing, and the unexpected tap dance number is especially enjoyable.

Overall, Yank! tells an important story in a mode that is entertaining and unpredictable, perfectly blending humour and gravity to produce a play that is insightful and inspiring. The cast and creative team are excellent, and with tickets starting at £15 for students, this interesting and original production strikes me as the perfect way to make the most of the long vac. 4 and a half stars.