Yank! continues at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 19 August.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
A half century before the US military service policy ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, relationships between gay men in the US Armed Forces were, if not exactly tolerated, tacitly acknowledged.
In the mix of adrenaline and testosterone, frustrated men occasionally turned to each other for relief – the crime was to identify as homosexual. As one character in this new Second World War musical drama says: “it’s not doing it that’s the crime – it’s the wanting it.”
Joseph and David Zellnik’s Yank! (here in a production which has transferred from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester) tells the story of Stu (Scott Hunter), a sensitive teenager who enlists in the latter years of the war, and who falls under the wing of Andy Coxon’s charming, sweet-talking, closeted Mitch.
After Stu leaves his company as they head to the front in order to take a post at Yank! Magazine, a propaganda sheet for the forces, he encounters the rather more outré Artie (Chris Kiely) and begins to explore his sexuality, while never forgetting about Mitch.
The Zellniks are clearly steeped in their knowledge of, and admiration for, the great Hollywood musicals of yore. Joseph’s music, and his brother David’s lyrics, sometimes feel as if they have been ripped out of time.
Peppered throughout the show, songs are performed as if on radio by a succession of forces sweethearts (all played by Sarah-Louise Young, the cast’s sole female) and all feel as if they have been appropriated for the show, rather than being new compositions.
Likewise, the musical’s narrative numbers evoke the glory days of Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. And while the great masters’ works often showed a greater sense of word play and lyrical mastery than is on display here, there is no sense of being shortchanged.
In a musical about repressed sexuality, it is perhaps no surprise that the act of dance becomes the show’s easiest metaphor for sex.
Chris Cuming’s choreography uses this to great effect, no less so than in a beautiful tap dancing pas de deux between Kiely and Hunter, as the experienced Artie takes Stu in hand, only to find that the timid young soldier comes out of his shell.
It’s at once a great pastiche of the great Hollywood musical sequences where couples would effortlessly ape each other’s intricate dance moves, and an evocation of a young boy blossoming into adulthood.
The army’s often contradictory attitude towards the gay people among its ranks – from the bitchy queens of the stenography pool, to the general’s lesbian secretary who knows she only keeps her job because she’s so much better at the role than she would otherwise have to be – is articulated nicely.
Stu’s relationship with his original company, who grow from bullying him to recognising that he is the only one who can comfort Mitch when he needs it, works down to sharply realised characters that are served well both by the book and by the ensemble.
Victoria Hinton’s set has an understated simplicity to it, which enables the fine ensemble (under the directorial gaze of James Baker) to be shown to is best effect.
And while Stu’s nightmares after being arrested occasionally descend into near-incoherence on all fronts, in general the sound and lighting designs in Yank! are effective.
As the show’s central relationship, Hunter and Coxon are sweetly charming together, although the more nuanced emergence of Mitch’s own coming out (by necessity a more complex characterisation than Hunter’s Stu) does not emerge on stage as effectively as it could.
Sensibly, the Zellniks avoid a fairy tale ending for their principal characters, nevertheless opting for an optimistic one. And its ultimate message, of the virtues of fighting against a system that denigrated its own people merely for the supposed sin of love, is a movingly powerful one.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Scott Hunter on telling the ‘beautifully human’ story of Yank! at the Charing Cross Theatre.