A tonally confused musical lifted by some fantastic performances and moments of pathos and humour
Some stories didn’t make the history books and ‘Yank’ sets out to correct that. Subtitled ‘A World War II Love Story’, the musical, making its UK première at Hope Mill Theatre, tells the story of Stu, a Midwestern kid drafted into the army in World War II, and the rest of Charlie Company as they battle with masculinity and love in wartime.
Seeing the story through Stu’s eyes (and diary) allows the audience to take the show to its heart from the outset. Scott Hunter is a likeable performer and his portrayal of a boy struggling with whether he is cut out for the army, whilst he falls in love with his fellow officer Mitch, is sympathetic and multi-dimensional. Barnaby Hughes is also perfectly cast as Mitch, a wartime matinee idol type whose ability to ‘pass’ as straight gives him more freedom from harassment than his on-and-off partner.
Whilst Hughes does a worthy job of showing Mitch’s confusion in his feelings towards Stu, the material he is working with makes the character difficult to connect with and I found his constantly changing mood grating. He is a far more charming performer than the character he portrays.
We see Stu through all the classic tropes of ‘young gay man, big bright city’. Except it’s 1943, and he’s in the army. Where ‘Yank!’ excels is in the moments it deviates from this cliché. James Baker’s direction is wonderfully judged throughout, but particularly in the more dramatic moments.
Without giving away too much, one sequence in the final third brings the musical into more serious territory and it is all the better for it as we get a glimpse of what ‘Yank!’ could be.
This is not to say that there are not elements of the ‘lighter’ moments of the show that are not very entertaining. The tap sequences are beautifully choreographed by Chris Cuming and skilfully executed by the whole cast.
A particular mention to Chris Kiely as Artie, who has a lightness of touch in both his acting and dancing which makes him a highly watchable performer. I would have loved to have seen more of the “ladies” in the comms office, an early sequence that had the audience laughing throughout.
‘Yank!’ is a show that occasionally revels in comedic stereotypes whilst simultaneously subverting them in the tradition of musicals such as La Cage Aux Folles. Whilst enjoyable these interludes do feel somewhat out of place, although the direction and the performances mostly deal with the sharp tonal shifts effectively.
‘Yank!’ is trying to be three different musicals: a modern update on the Rogers and Hammerstein-style romantic comedy romp, a coming of age story, and a dramatic treatise on the way in which gay men and women were treated in the armed forces in World War II.
Its ambition is admirable, but the outcome sometimes falls short. Nevertheless, this production is a genuinely enjoyable evening of theatre.
Yank! is running at Hope Mill Theatre until 8th April.