Caro Meets Comedy Interview Theatre Interview

Matt Sheahan: Instructions For American Servicemen In Britain

By | Published on Thursday 29 June 2017

‘Instructions For American Servicemen In Britain’, opening this month at Jermyn Street Theatre, is the work of a quartet of creatives – Dan March, Jim Millard, Matt Sheahan and John Walton – three of whom you might recognise as members of highly successful sketch troupe The Real MacGuffins.
This comical play has already done lots of touring, and has met with huge acclaim along the way. To find out more, I spoke to one of that aforementioned quartet, Matt Sheahan.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the show is about? What story does it tell?
MS: The show is based on a genuine pamphlet given to American GIs on their way to Blighty in 1942. Essentially it was a crash-course in how to understand the British, so for our show we’ve created a fictional unit of the US Air Force who arrive and create havoc in the local village. Their commanders are forced to teach the basics of British life, and the show has a lot of fun exploring their clumsy attempts to do this.

CM: What characters are in the show and who plays them?
MS: There are three main characters in the show – a bluff American Colonel, a smooth New York Lieutenant and an ineffectual English Major – some of the local villagers also make cameos. Dan March, James Millard and myself play all the characters – we’re a comedy group that has been working together for over 8 years.

CM: Where does the humour in the show arise from? Are there any serious elements, or is it a full on comedy?
MS: The setting for the show is of course quite serious – things in 1942 were looking pretty bleak for Britain and the Allies. At the same time, we knew we were making a comedy, so the feel is much more Dad’s Army style – where the fun comes from oversized characters and the eccentricities of English behaviour. It also gives us a great opportunity to indulge in our favourite national pastime, laughing at ourselves, and our second favourite pastime – laughing at Americans!

CM: What inspired it? What made you want to do a play on this subject?
MS: It was very much inspired by the pamphlet. Our director John Walton came across it in a book shop and when he brought it to us we immediately saw its potential. As we researched more and more around the subjects, we were hooked – there are just so many fascinating and hilarious stories of the over two million GIs who came to Britain and changed it forever. Our show is as much a tribute to them as it is a joyous romp through our national idiosyncrasies.

CM: Can you tell us about some of the instructions that were actually given to American servicemen?
MS: Well we don’t want to give too much away – a lot of the best stuff we’ve included in the show! But the book covers almost every aspect of British life from how to behave in a pub, what culinary delights to expect in ‘austerity’ Britain, the pre-decimalised currency, as well as the difference in culture and temperament between the US and the UK. There are also some cracking lines, like “”The British are tough – the English language didn’t spread across the world because these people were panty-waists.” I still have no idea what a “panty-waist” is.

CM: You’re just one of the people who put the show together. How did you go about it? How did your creative process work?
MS: We started with lots of research, devouring books about the American ‘friendly invasion’, meeting people with memories of the time, and even visiting places like the Imperial War Museum and an old US Airbase at Upper Hayford. We then improvised around various characters and scenarios, with our director John working to put our ideas into a coherent narrative. Basically we would sit at John’s kitchen table writing while he fed us. The next day we would try out the scenes we had written, improvise some more, and then head back to the kitchen table for rewrites and more feeding. It was a kind of battery farming method for writing, but the results are, ironically, completely organic and free range.

CM: As you mentioned earlier further up, the cast are AKA The Real MacGuffins, hereto better know for sketch comedy. Is that a format you are planning to return to at any point?
MS: We love sketch comedy and it is a great training for creating interesting characters, punchy scenes and dialogue, which all feeds into this full-length show. We have enjoyed writing a ‘long-form’ comedy a lot and are working on another production, but I’m sure we will return to making another sketch show at some point.

CM: What else do you get up to when you are not working together?
MS: We are all busy with our solo acting careers. I recently took the lead in a feature film – ‘Destination Dewsbury’ – which is opening some time later this year, Dan has been dividing his time between London and LA, and James is a very talented actor and I’m sure he’ll find something soon.

CM: What’s next for the show, after this London run?
MS: We’ll see! Got any good contacts in America? We’d love to take it across the pond.

CM: What other projects do you have planned for the future?
MS: We’re always writing, and have been developing a sitcom for TV, working on some Radio 4 projects and developing another full length show. John our director is as ridiculously busy as ever – after our show he’s got two more at Edinburgh – a revenge thriller called ‘The North! The North!’ and a zombie-themed circus called ‘Elixir’. Check them out!

‘Instructions For American Servicemen In Britain’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 3-29 Jul, see the venue website here for details.

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