Q&A with John Walton, director of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

Why did you choose to adapt this 1942 pamphlet for the stage? 

I stumbled upon the Instructions in Waterstone’s a few years ago, and I’ve been wanting to make a show based on them ever since. They’re such an endearing and loving snapshot of the country at a unique moment in its history. At the same time, they just seemed perfect for comic exploration. 

How true have you kept to the original instructions? 

It’s always tricky to make something theatrically interesting yet still true to the source material. When we adapted Churchill’s auto-biography into Winston On the Run we knew it was more important to keep to the spirit than the actual letter of his words. It’s the same with the Instructions. Fortunately Dr Samuel Fanous – the force behind the Bodleian Library’s decision to re-publish the instructions – came along to our work-in-progress performance and loved it, so we must be doing something right!

Why did you want to work with The Real MacGuffins?

I knew they’d be a perfect match for the material. They’re a fab comedy trio full of ridiculous witticisms, idiotic imaginations and a wonderful on-stage dynamic. Also, they share my passion for working directly with an audience, so I knew that together we could create a joyous evening of entertainment.

What were your inspirations when making the show? 

I grew up adoring Dad’s Army, and that kind of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia is definitely at the heart of the show. I also have some very close American friends, have travelled lots in the US, and used to work as a tour guide for Americans in London. There’s something so wonderful about their attitude to life, which is so completely different to our own; I wanted to explore those differences. In addition, as I was doing my research on the period, I was constantly moved by the tales of bravery and fortitude exhibited by the men and women of that period. Our show is very funny, but I would be devastated if people thought it was disrespectful. 

You started work on the show in November 2014. What has been the journey of this production? 

We always knew that this show would tour to a mix of urban and rural venues, so one of the key aims was to develop the show in residence at a local village hall. The Theatre Chipping Norton helped us find a host venue, and we spent two weeks in Steeple Aston Village – meeting residents, hearing their stories of the war, exploring the local history and visiting the nearby USAF base. We had a brilliant time, and the experience fed directly into the show. Also, early on we had a couple of ‘work-in-progress’ performances, which helped us test ideas and see what was working. I find it impossible to make a show without trialling versions in front of an audience. They tell you everything you need to know. Then it was just a case of refining what we had and trying to make it as funny as possible. 

What attracts you, as a director, to comedy? 

Much as I adore to laugh, I used to think there was something a little cheap about comedy, as if it wasn’t a quite grown-up enough thing to spend one’s life doing. Fortunately I’ve got over that, mainly because I think there’s so much misery in the world, and if I can bring a little joy and fun, then that’s a pretty amazing contribution. Also, as a comedy director, my job is essentially just to sit there while a group of actors try and make me giggle. It’s not a bad way to spend my time! 

What do you want the audience to leave having experienced? 

I want the audience to have had a joyous, fun evening; to have bonded with each other and the MacGuffins; and to leave with a big smile on their face. Perhaps they’ll also remember that actually, Britain has never stood strongest alone, but always hand-in-hand with its international allies. Ultimately though, I just want them to laugh. 

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