Pros: A magnificent performance by Jack Holden.
Cons: Might not be breaking any new ground in theatre – though the script certainly carries an important message.
Meet Joe Bonham, an earnest, good-natured young American shipped off to fight in WWI. As Joe paces around the stage, telling us about both his experiences on the frontline, and his memories of his innocent youth, it takes a while for the full horror of his situation to come into focus. Spoiler alert: we eventually realize that Joe is lying in a hospital bed, bodily mutilated. He has lost all his limbs, his eyes, his nose and his ears in battle. A prisoner in his own body, his life consists of being cleaned and changed by his nurses, and devising mental activities to stave off insanity. We in the audience see and hear Joe as the fresh-faced youth he once was. In this way, Johnny Got His Gun gives a voice to war victims who have none.
Presented by Metal Rabbit, this one-man show is based on a pacifist novel of the same name by Dalton Trumbo. The programme explains that the play is intended as an antidote to the glorification of war and the patriotism that is prevalent as the WWI centenary is marked this year. Johnny Got His Gun makes the case that there is no glory in war, and that no cause is worthy of the sacrifice of human life.
Jack Holden gives a skilled and magnetic performance as Joe, the plucky young soldier. He kept the audience riveted throughout the entire 70-minute performance. It is fascinating to watch him try to understand and communicate with the world around him. Remarkably, despite the gravity of the material, there are still a few laughs to break the tension; a testament to Holden’s skill. The set is bare, except for a single chair. The light and sound design by Christopher Nairne and Max Pappenheim were among the most effective I’ve ever seen. This is a simple production, without gimmicks, just excellent acting and stage craft to create a powerful and moving experience.
I realize I may have made Johnny Got His Gun sound like a depressing evening. Strangely, for me it was not. I felt the way I always feel after a truly excellent piece of theatre: uplifted and grateful for the experience.
Author: Dalton Trumbo, adapted for the stage by Bradley Rand Smith
Director: David Mercatali
Producer: George Warren
Booking Until: 14th June 2014
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk