“We’re in a battle we never planned”
Seeing Yank! A WWII Love Story on the day that the streets of London were thronged with people celebrating Pride made what was already a strong show into a properly special occasion. Joseph and David Zellnik’s 2005 musical was first seen in the UK at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre which, with its collaborations with Aria Entertainments, has fast become a real fringe powerhouse (their production of Hair also transfers to London later this year) and with James Baker’s assured direction and James Cleeve’s rapturous musical direction, it is easy to see the love happening here.
Yank! was written by the Zellniks as a deliberate homage to the musicals of the 1940s but it is a Second World War love story with a difference. Beginning as a rites of passage tale for the barely 18 year old Stu who finds himself drafted into the army in 1943, the story grows in stature as his first real taste of the outside world is accompanied by his tumbling head over heels for his handsome fellow conscript Mitch, the revelation that those feelings are reciprocated, and then the crushing realisation of the impossibility of living their lives as proud gay men, whether within the army or without.
I’m a sucker for a tragic wartime romance but I was surprised at how affecting I found this show. From Stu’s blossoming from the shy schoolboy afraid to go into the showers with the other guys to the young man owning – and enjoying – his sexuality (an excellent Scott Hunter); the force with which Andy Coxon’s powerfully-voiced Mitch tries to battle his internalised homophobia; the sensitive but intelligent ways in which the book details the way in which gay men and lesbians developed coping strategies and identified the sacrifices they were willing to make in order to live life in the open.
For all the lightness of touch – the comms office scene is glorious, and Chris Kiely’s Artie has a wonderful spring in his step with Chris Cuming’s choreography – the melancholy air of the impossibility of Stu and Mitch’s happiness grounds Yank! with real heart and honesty. Sole woman in the cast Sarah-Louise Young further deepens this with her cabaret-style contributions reminding us of the wider world the soldiers are fighting for. And Baker’s sureness with the material means that we’re never left in any doubt as to the strength of the love at stake here, whichever shade of the rainbow it reflects.