Biloxi Blues

by Neil Simon

Directed by Martin Buttery

February 23rd - March 2nd, 2002

The Tower Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury


Cast List

Eugene Morris Jerome : Stuart Denman
Arnold Epstein : Adrian Prota
Don Carney : Peter Miller
Joseph Wykowski : Richard Thornton
Roy Selridge : Joe Radcliffe
James Hennessey : Craig Carruthers
Sgt Merwin J Toomey : Michael Greener
Rowena : Despina Sellar
Daisy Hannigan : Meg Meagher


Production Team

Director : Martin Buttery
Set Design : Jude Chalk
Lighting Design : Stephen Ley
Costume Design : Kay Perversi
Sound Design : Phillip Ley
Movement : Deborah McGhee

Stage Managers : Lesley Scarth, Moira McSperrin
ASMs : Colette Dockery, Terry Baker-Self, Dinah Irvine, Jude Chalk, Claire Rice
Voice Coach : Lily Ann Green
Lighting Operator : Annie Connell
Sound Operator : Martin Brady
Set Construction : Roger Beaumont, Keith Hill, Steven Hyndman, Phillip Ley, Eileen Mullen, Claire Rice, Charley Radcliffe, Keith Syrett, Amy Wright & members of the cast and crew

In-house review by David Reynolds


Although I am familiar with the last play in Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy, I don't know the first and have only seen the film of this, the middle one, Biloxi Blues. However, people tell me it is the best of thc three and I am prepared to believe them. Why so? Well, I suspect it is because there is less of the over-sentimental. self- indulgent, soul-searching, that needlessly afflicts a certain type of light American drama and, taken on its own, is too sickly for most British palates. Perhaps, to be more accurate, while a certain amount of emotional self-exploration is present, it is frameworked within both the harsh reality of life in an army barracks and the passage to adulthood of the recruits stationed there. The play deals with six young men (still barely beyond adolescence) who have to grow up fast before being sent off to war. It seems perfectly natural that they would want to talk about themselves and, of course, the plot and dialogue are well-seasoned with Simon's trademark reflective wit and one-liners.
The play is set in Fort Biloxi, a "boot" camp for draftees in Mississippi in 1943. There, raw conscr1pts, including our narrator (autobiogapher) Eugene, are being trained for D-Day or the Pacific islands and while some relish the hard yet simple army routine, others have to come to terms with accepting an uncivilised means of achieving a civilised end: an ongoing Amencan dilemma, perhaps? At the same time, these young men have to deal with the more particular prohlems posed by sexual need and responsibility, trust and betrayal, comradeship between opposites in character and yes, even wartime romance.
So much for the play - what about the production? Well, I don't think I really have the words to do justice to Martin Buttery's excellent directorial debut. All I can say is that he is clearly as good a director as he is a performer. Admittedly, he was heIped by a credibIe barracks set (Jude Chalk) and the staging was flexible enough to transform, almost unnoticeably, from and to the opening and closing scenes in a railway compartment. Some might say that the extra settings of the tart's boudoir and the exterior romantic promenade should have been better realised but I think I would disagree with them. Stage trucks can be distracting when wheeled around. In any event, I felt I was there and that's what matters to me. Moreover, the scene changes were among the best I had seen at the Tower. Due appreciation must go therefore to the whole crew led by Lesley Scarth and Moira McSperrin.
Back to Mr. Buttery : the real guts of this piece lie in the collective playing by the six young men who are being moulded into soldiers by their sergeant and, put simply, you will not see any better ensemble playing anywhere. If there is a manual in this respect, to borrow perhaps a military analogy, then I think Martin Buttery must have written it. The set was also important in this success, of course - the double-decker bunks, as well as the intelligent but enforced use of them in the staging, gave a third dimension to the action which is always an advantage. Direction and staging aside, I also doubt many (even officially) amateur companies could have mustered so many genuinely young good male actors for a cast lhat requires youth. True, older actors "ageing down" often do a passable job in such circumstances but the overall casting for this production gave it real credibility.
It is difficult to single anyone out in respect of the ensemble (in fact, by definition, that should be impossible!). However, each characterisation was distinct. First there was the muscular aggession of Wykowski (well played by Richard Thornton). Then there was the laid-hack ambivalence of Camey (Peter Miller - a talented product of the Tower Youth Tbeatre, I understand) and the guilty bonhomie of Hennesey (Craig Carruthers). We also saw the crew-cut all-American boy, Selridge (Joe Radcliffe - no, I didn't recognise him either until I saw the programme!), the diary Keeping, almost prissy narrator Eugene Moms Jerome (Stuart Denman) and the physically misfit but engagingly rebellious Epstein (Adrian Prota - excellent). All six had their moments and very good they were too. I must admlt I did wonder whether the slightly camp edge that Adrian Prota brought to Epstein was a touch over the top but he never let it get out of hand and of course, it makes sense of Eugene's homophobic suspicions. On reflection, it was a really nicely observed trait.
You get used to a very good performance from the immensely versatile Stuart Denman and he did not disappoint in the lead role here. It is what I would call a "Jack Lemmon" type of part where you have to play the emotional requirements without the solid character background of the British theatrical tradition. Such acting demands a certain amount of panache plus the skill of overt gesticulation that few performers here can master and it is a thankless task if you fail. This actor, however, pulled it off with aplomb.
One should not forget that there were two (contrasting) female parts in this play and they were also excellently done. Despina Sellar was on top form as the rather maternal camp tart (another example of how the noticeable youth of the soldiers paid dividends dramatically) and Meg Meagher was equally impressive as the very demure love interest, Daisy Hannigan.
On a technical note, Kay Perversi's costumes for the show were, as one would anticipate, excellent and as good as any you would see on the television. Again, technical aspects, I felt all the East Coast/New York Jewish accents were authentic (voice coach Lily Ann Green) and particularly good was the way Michael Greener maintained his southem drawl against the others in his part as the overbearing Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey. Such characters form almost a separate theatrical/cinematic genre in themselves (my own favourites being Nigel Green in Zulu and Morgan Freeman in Glory) and this one was definitely as memorable as any in the canon. I understand that the actor came late to the role which was a pity because I dld not think he was physically fit enough in appearance and, more importantly, it did not demonstrate the actua1 madness of Toomey. On the other hand he put over the sergeant's dedication and intelligence well and the drunken verbal dual with Epstein over the whole justification of Biloxi's mission was the scene I enjoyed most.
To sum up, Blioxi Blues was a wonderful night at the theatre and a great advert for the Tower.