Yank! continues at the Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester until 8 April.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
When Joseph and David Zellnik penned Yank! it was something of a labour of love, combining their passion for the musical theatre of the 1940s and 50s with their interest in Second World War history, and especially the experience of gay servicemen and women.
Following its Off-Broadway success in 2010, it now enjoys its European premiere at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre under the elegant direction of James Baker.
Certainly the recurring musical number ‘Rememb’ring You’ delivers a powerful hit of nostalgia after the opening dialogue, and sets the tone of the show, but the writing is far more than a mere pastiche of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe.
Whilst the style is clearly reminiscent of that golden age, it’s blended with a punchy modernity that avoids any sense of self indulgence.
Love stories set in wartime make for great musical material, but while the challenges to most wartime romances come from external forces, here it’s the prejudice and fear from within the ranks that stand as the obstacles to tenderness.
Scott Hunter opens the show in the present day, reading lines from a soldier’s journal he found in a junk shop, and as we segue back in time to the American training camp where it was written he becomes Stu, a raw recruit struggling to fit in amongst the machismo of the company. He finds unexpected support and comfort from the handsome Mitch, delicately played by Barnaby Hughes.
However, the deeply entrenched homophobia engrained in their colleagues, and in the system itself, proves overpowering. An opportunity to join the editorial team of the popular service magazine ‘Yank!’ along with photographer Artie (Chris Kelly) both saves Stu from his immediate problems and ultimately presents him with his biggest emotional hurdles.
Hope Mill Theatre is barely more than a year old, but in Yank! it demonstrates its striking ability to create work with a large-scale feel in a small space.
Victoria Hinton’s strikingly simple design maximises impact with minimal resources, A collection of wooden crates and a single bunk bed are all that’s needed to create all the settings, brought to life by a crack-shot lighting script from Aaron J Dootson.
A well chosen cast of 12 play multiple roles with a sense of ease, and special note goes to Spencer Cartwright whose Sarge and Scarlett are poles apart, and Sarah-Louise Young who plays all the female characters in the piece.
Hunter, Hughes and Kelly are perfect for the central triangular relationship, and Hunter especially gains the affection of the audience. All are in exceptionally fine singing voice and ably carry off choreographer Chris Cuming’s startlingly big dance routines in the limited space.
An offstage seven-piece band, under the musical direction of James Cleeve, gives a stylish performance, and excellent sound design from Chris Bogg ensures that the subtly miked vocals are never overwhelmed by the music.
Yank! is co-produced by Ben Millerman with Hope Mill Theatre and Aria Entertainment.