Review by Steve Nardoni
Sandwiched between the iconic World War II song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” which opens and closes this show, is a baloney-filled, rollicking comedy that has all the inherent hilarity of poking fun at cultural differences. Before the show we got a lesson from a seat-mate who told us that Marmite, the popular British oily yeast extract spread, is delicious VERY lightly spread on cream cheese. Later on we get to see the result of heaping this stuff into one’s mouth.
Created by and starring the British sketch group The Real MacGuffins (Dan March, James Millard, and Matt Sheahan) “Instructions” is based on an actual pamphlet given to GIs during World War 2 and on the chronic need for Americans, during wars and even to this day, to get out of our comfort zones in foreign countries. Contemporary travel guru Rick Steves implores in each of his guides that we Americans need to learn to have a “willingness to go local”. During World War 2 there were such pamphlets distributed to servicemen in Britain, France, Germany and Australia.
It’s 1942 and a squadron of men in the American Air Force have recently arrived close to the village of Nether Middleton, Britain and are stationed at an army base nearby. The evening before the men went “on a toot” down to the village and it was reported in the Sunday London Times that the men “ran amok”.
American Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard) has gathered the men for a meeting requested by American Colonel Atwood (Dan March) for damage control and to offset German propaganda to split the Allies apart. British Major Randolph Gibbons (Matt Sheahan) of Joint Allied Command arrives with a mandate to lock down the base, and the three men have “intercourse” on how to proceed with the problem. But first the language differences are hilariously highlighted when the Colonel tries to literally interpret the off-the-cuff phrases of Major Gibbons, like “Excuse me”, “I beg your pardon”, and “I’m awfully sorry”. Lieutenant Schultz explains “…he’s British, that’s how they talk…”
To avoid the base shutdown, Schultz, Atwood and Gibbons agree to provide “full cultural training” to the troops. Unfortunately the “Instructions” pamphlets for the base were torn up to be used in the latrines as substitutes for undelivered toilet paper. “…we have found that Government information leaflets are surprisingly absorbent…”
Thus the officers, (each with their own special “flair”) proceed to indoctrinate the troops on Britain and its culture with “droll” (that means “funny”) results. The geography lesson on the British Isles instructed by Colonel Atwood is a side-plitting overview from the perspective of a 1940’s American. First confusing Ireland with England on a map, Atwood raves : “It’s small and it’s crowded…it’s wet…London’s all Buckinghamshire Palace, bowler hats & sarcasm…Newcastle and Sunderland, they hate each other…”.
Then onto “conversational techniques” where Atwood boorishly tries to engage Gibbons in chit-chat, to where his success lies in talking about the weather where it’s “practically raining pitchforks.”
Next Gibbons tackles the British monetary system, first by horribly disparaging the American system “…which, for want of a better word is…French”. He then proceeds to a pants-wetting description of currency impossible to fathom, with undecipherable blackboard machinations, which he sums up as “…perfectly straightforward. Sure and sound as eggs are eggs.”
Lieutenant Schultz adds to the hilarity by stealing the show with his drag renditions of first, Isobel, Gibbons’ wife and then Gibbons’ mother, Margaret. He turns Isobel into this wanton woman lusting after Colonel “Marion” Atwood (“…oh Marion…there’s something about you…”) and channels a doting British mother as Margaret who attempts warns Atwood against taking a huge dollop of Marmite! Too late!
The second act starts with a men-as-Nazi puppets propaganda show entitled Nazi Spy School, a German instruction on infiltrating and spreading discord among the Allies (with major emphasis on perfecting “cheerio” and the “stiff upper lip”). Meanwhile, back at the base, waiting for Winston Churchill to appear, the three fanatical officers complete their indoctrination by attempting to meld cricket and baseball into a completely incoherent game (the blackboard writings of their work wind up to be a replica of a swastika, to their horror). Boisterous audience participation was not to be ignored, and we got to throw paper balls back and forth from the stage
This high-spirited night ended when the men showed us, the troops, how Brits relaxed, through Morris Dancing, a version of the Hokie Pokey with hankies. This fun-filled show was able to capture the humor of the Brits with a nod to the tribulations of war.
Photos: Lidia Cristafulli
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain – Presented at 59E59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street New York, NY – Through May 12th