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Killer Soldier Opens Theater; Simon Callow: London Stage

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'Mademoiselle Julie'
Actors Nicolas Bouchaud and Juliette Binoche have a heated exchange in August Strindberg's "Mademoiselle Julie" at the Barbican in London. The production is staged by Frederic Fisbach. Photographer: Christophe Raynaud de Lage/Festival d'Avignon/Barbican via Bloomberg

Sept. 21 (Bloomberg) -- British Army Private Eddie Clark is accused of tossing an Iraqi boy down a well.

The 20-year-old soldier (Joshua Miles) is questioned by Major Oscar Hadley (Anthony Andrews), a Falklands War veteran now in a wheelchair. The pair form the cast of “Bully Boy,” which premiered this week at the brand-new St. James Theatre.

The writer of “Bully Boy,” Sandi Toksvig (a comedian and broadcaster), sets out to focus on the mentally scarred, those unspoken casualties of war. In the program, she mentions that as many as 1.5 million Vietnam War veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the play, she has a line about the Falklands War causing more suicide deaths than combat deaths.

Worthy causes make awkward theater, especially when the writer is better known for one-liners than full-length plays. Each scene in “Bully Boy” would work fine as a (radio) skit. Taken as a whole, the play feels disjointed.

Frontloading the drama doesn’t help. The Iraqi village boy’s death is recounted at the start, making whatever comes after feel flat.

Director Patrick Sandford tries to keep it all lively by introducing shock elements. Scene changes are quick and deafening, especially at the start: Lights go off, and you hear a mix of artillery fire, human howls, and the Muslim call to prayer. Sets consist of projections of barbed wire, flag-draped coffins, or bookshelves.

Brideshead Star

The real intensity comes from the acting. Miles is excellent as feral Eddie, sweating and spluttering across the stage in combat camouflage. Andrews (who was in “Brideshead Revisited”) brings upper-class stiffness to his role.

There’s a touching bond between two lost souls that everything divides: class, age, rank. Eddie has a heavy northeastern accent, no schooling, and a father who drinks. Hadley has breeding, medals, and a sense of duty. Yet both are helpless victims of a war they can’t put behind them.

Humor crops up at the end when Eddie probes Hadley’s musical tastes, betting he likes “fat women singing foreign.” Hadley reveals a taste for Kool & the Gang and Hot Chocolate. Ultimately, the two performers make the most of a patchy play, allowing London’s youngest theater to get off to a solid start. Rating: *** (Farah Nayeri)

Simon Callow

“The Mystery of Charles Dickens,” Simon Callow’s one-man show at the Playhouse Theatre, promises an evening of suspense.

As it bowls along, buoyed by Callow’s infectious enthusiasm, the greatest mystery is the title.

Dickens had dark secrets in his personal life for sure, though there isn’t the huge unanswered thriller to match the great Victorian novelist’s classic plots.

It goes at a cracking pace, tearing through Dickens’s real-life drama: scarred childhood, poverty wages, rise to huge fame and fortune, ill-fated marriage and younger mistress.

Fans of the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” star, or the legions of Dickensians marking the writer’s bicentennial, will love it. This isn’t so much a play as it is a staged lecture.

It’s still a one-man tour de force as Callow switches adroitly between the roles of the narrator and Dickens himself. He’s at his best playing unpleasant characters such as Fagin, Uriah Heep and Mrs. Gamp. The clever script is by Peter Ackroyd.

Callow has performed this in the West End and around the world before, with a tour ending in 2003. His new director, Richard Twyman, keeps the show fresh and simple.

Rating: *** (Mark Beech)

Binoche’s Julie

Juliette Binoche is bedding the help.

As the poor little rich girl in “Mademoiselle Julie” -- the 1888 August Strindberg play -- the French actress struts the Barbican stage in a slinky sequined number with a slit on the side. She shows up to the servants’ party and easily convinces her dad’s valet to spend the night with her.

Dynamics shift: The valet gets cocky, she gets clingy.

Frederic Fisbach’s contemporary staging is effective. The play opens on two sets of sliding panes. Behind one set are the valet and the maid (his girlfriend); behind another is the party, with throbbing disco music.

Nicolas Bouchaud and Benedicte Cerutti are convincing as the household staff in this French-language production (with English surtitles). Binoche, however, seems under-rehearsed, and does a little too much howling.

Rating: *** (Farah Nayeri)

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

“Bully Boy” is at St. James Theatre, 12 Palace Street, SW1E 5JA, through Oct. 27. Information: +44-844-264-2140 or http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.

“The Mystery of Charles Dickens” is at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, WC2N 5DE, through Nov. 10. Information: +44-20-7492-1593, http://simoncallow.com/ or http://www.playhousetheatrelondon.com. Fisbach, premiered at the Festival d’Avignon.

“Mademoiselle Julie” ends Sept. 29 at the Barbican Theatre: http://www.barbican.org.uk or +44-845-120-7511.

(Farah Nayeri and Mark Beech write for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.

To contact the writers on the story: Farah Nayeri in London at farahn@bloomberg.net or Mark Beech in London at mbeech@bloomberg.net or http://twitter.com/Mark_Beech.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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