During both World Wars, countries had to put aside their differences to fight common enemies. They had to stay united, or the outcome of the war might have been different. When we think of the World Wars, we think of them in terms of battles and their aftermath. Instead of focusing on these much tread upon stories, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain follows the disconnect between the English and Americans during the war, taking a more humorous spin on the topic and focusing on some U.S. soldiers and commanders just after they’ve landed in Britain. These Yankees don’t understand British tea, the overly polite and passive-aggressive way they speak, and the obsession with their monarch. Likewise, the British major also has some trouble with cultural differences. He struggles to get the loud and rambunctious Americans he has to help assimilate in England.
Inspired by the real pamphlet handed out to American soldiers with essentially the same title from 1942, the show works the contents of the pamphlet into a story. American soldiers have perhaps had too much fun on a night out in Nether Middleton, the quintessential British town they’re stationed in. Constable Nott has been locked in his own cell, the Vicar’s cat Mr. Pippin is missing and the soldiers destroyed the town’s vegetable garden. The story of the American soldiers’ shenanigans ends up in The Sunday Times. Military officials Colonel Atwood (Dan March), a gruff leader with little cultural awareness, and Lieutenant Schultz (James Millard), likable and reminiscent of a 1940s movie star, try to get their men back in line with some help from British Major Gibbons before Winston Churchill visits.
The three actors are equally matched with their jokes, gags, and comedic timing. They are fun to watch, even if you know where their jokes are going. March commits to the bumbling Colonel, mispronouncing the River Thames and “Brussel sprouts” as “Brussel sproots” with the confidence of a Midwestern American who considers anything outside of his country abnormal. Major Gibbons gets extremely excited going over all of the British coins, which just illustrates how convoluted the British money system used to be when he starts to divide the coins into 1/20ths.
The script, which was written by the three actors and director John Walton, is full of sharp and witty dialogue. Shortly after Atwood and Gibbons meet, they hit a snag. Gibbons speaks in very polite Britishisms and is confusing Atwood with it. “It might be better if we spoke in private.” Gibbons tells the Colonel. “It MIGHT be better – what he’s not sure?” Atwood says, looking to Schultz for help with translation. Schultz is the middleman throughout the play. He has a slight understanding of British culture, but still understands why the Americans might be confused.
Although the show is largely entertaining and captivating, there are some parts that don’t quite translate with the audience. In the beginning of the show, Schultz and Atwood address the audience as if they were soldiers, telling the audience to stand up and try to get them to actively participate. Audience participation of this sort, especially at the beginning of the show when the audience is trying to get used to the new world of the play, is jarring and prevents the show from gaining momentum. There were awkward pauses where the actors couldn’t find people to participate. If this tool was used to highlight how aggressive Americans can be, then it hit its mark, but I don’t think that was the intention. The show would have been much smoother if Walton had removed this.
The set and costume design, by Martin Thomas, seemed true to the WWII period. The set was fairly bare and felt like a classroom, which fit the play. These American soldiers are being taught how to assimilate, after all, and the focus needs to primarily be on the three performers. The lighting design, by David Todaro is particularly interesting during a show-within-a-show sequence when the three actors put on a puppet show that poked fun at Hitler and the Germans.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain was a glimpse back into the past and reminds the audience that the world felt a lot smaller just 77 years ago. Sometimes the British jokes seem obvious to us, but that might be because we have had the opportunity to visit Britain or learn about that country from TV news or movies. But it’s also a reminder that even the smallest cultural differences seemed like a huge deal before, and we can work to find a common understanding again. The show feels very of its time, for better and for worse.