Anyone up for Morris dancing? Based on the American War Office’s 1942 pamphlet, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain attempts to present the audience (a group of GIs who just arrived in England after a night of wild partying in the local village) with a crash course in British culture for their new home. The comedy trio known as The Real MacGuffins (Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan) perform this comedic presentation with ridiculous witticisms, idiotic imaginations and a wonderful on-stage dynamic.
The Bodleian Library republished the original pamphlet in 2005 as an educational guide to the quirks and customs of real life. It covered everything from cricket and royalty to Sunday afternoon activities in the country. Originally written by an American, the work effectively holds up a mirror to British culture during the war and gives a genuine portrait of our country from a transatlantic view.
It is always difficult to make a show like this theatrically interesting yet stay true to the source material. The performance seems inspired by the award-winning CBBC sketch show Horrible Histories, with laugh-out-loud moments catering to children and adults alike. Although the production company Fol Espoir offers educational workshops on history and drama for schools, the play lacked the informative or factual element that makes the Horrible Histories series so charming.
The performance takes a tongue-in-cheek look at British civilisation and explores aspects such as our ability to talk about weather constantly, our unwillingness to engage in conversation and the illogical old British currency system of pounds and shillings. The two American Majors portrayed in the first half have slightly dodgy accents and seem to be confused as to which part of America they come from. However, their overall performance is whimsical and amusing. At times the content seems to be mocking the American soldiers’ naivety or ignorance, but doesn’t come off as offensive as the focus of the show always comes back to how ridiculous the British culture is.
In the second half of the play the audience are found in the village hall, where they are preparing to meet Winston Churchill. This is when the Real MacGuffins’ comedy talent really shines through by portraying a series of characters, including a Lord of the manor, a serviceman’s mother and students from a Nazi spy school. The humour is very Monty Python-esque in the second half, especially when they portray women.
This is a very interactive show, and not one to go to if you don’t enjoy getting involved or are shy. The characters interact with the audience even before the show starts, and we are picked on at certain moments in the show. This includes asking everyone on the front row to stand up one by one and give their name whilst being interrogated about the previous night’s appalling behaviour in the local village. The audience I was in were predominantly made up of drama students, so they weren’t afraid of getting involved – one even doing 20 push-ups when requested by the major. There are opportunities for the entire audience to get involved, such as a scene that involves inventing a new American-British sport, crossed between cricket and baseball, where the audience is given a ball or an apple to throw at the characters, whilst they attempt to hit it back with their bats. This isn’t the most impressive bit of audience interaction, however: the show’s finale involves the entire audience armed with handkerchiefs getting on their feet and partaking in a spot of Morris dancing.
For a very funny and enjoyable interactive evening, this show is definitely one to see.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is touring until 20 November. For more information and tickets, see the Fol Espoir website. Photo: Maria Shickle.