Monday, 26 May 2014

Theatre review: Johnny Got His Gun

With a great deal of attention - deservedly - focused on the main house, Southwark Playhouse haven't allowed their studio space to get ignored, and have brought one of their big-name creatives, director David Mercatali, to The Little. Another commemoration of the First World War's centenary sees Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun adapted as a monologue by Bradley Rand Smith. Jack Holden plays Joe Bonham, an American soldier whose narration jumps back and forth, confusingly at first, between the day he left his small town to set off to war, and his current situation, incapacitated in some way in a hospital. As his thought processes start to clear a bit, we understand the full horror of his situation as he does: All four limbs have been amputated after an explosion that also deafened, blinded, and left him unable to speak; yet somehow, horribly, he's still alive.

Having been fighting alongside an English battalion, Joe believes the hospital may not even know he's American, let alone his identity. Starting by keeping track of the vibrations the nurse's footsteps make when she enters the room, he tries to find some way to feel part of the outside world again, with the ultimate aim of communicating with someone.

Mercatali is a frequent collaborator with Philip Ridley, which makes him experienced in putting nightmares on stage, and that is undoubtedly what's happening here. Trumbo's anti-war polemic isn't subtle, but it doesn't have to be: Joe is presented as an extreme contrast to the jingoistic language that recruits young men to their doom, and he wishes he could be put on display back in America as a cautionary tale alongside the recruiters speaking of honour.

Blond, blue-eyed Holden is the image of the all-American boy, but his casting is more than cosmetic as he delivers a powerful performance, sweating buckets as his physicality presents both the able-bodied Joe back at home before the war, and the Joe in his own mind, who tries desperately to keep more active mentally than he is able to physically. The ushers at Southwark Playhouse seem to have taken to saying "Enjoy!" as they tear tickets, which isn't quite the word for Johnny Got His Gun; it's not exactly an evening's entertainment, but it's powerful, disturbing, and movingly presented on a bare stage by Mercatali and Holden, with major contributions made by Max Pappenheim's sound design and Christopher Nairne's eerie lighting.

Johnny Got His Gun by Bradley Rand Smith, based on the novel by Dalton Trumbo, is booking until the 14th of June at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

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