Review: Johnny Got His Gun, Southwark Playhouse

“I’m the nearest thing to a dead man on this earth”

The centenary of the start of World War One has thrown up a raft of interesting programming in our nation’s theatres, looking at the devastating impact of that inconceivably destructive conflict and the decimating effect it had on an entire generation. At the same time, it has also seen a concerted movement from a self-serving Conservative government to try and recast this narrative as anti-patriotic and misrepresentative. I challenge any member of that administration to sit through Johnny Got His Gun and maintain such attitudes.

Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel has been adapted by Bradley Rand Smith into a simply sensational one man show that scorches its way through the Southwark Playhouse’s Little space with indignant fury and surely-warranted outrage. Colorado native Joe Bonham cheerily volunteered to serve for his country when the time came, leaving his family and his girl behind, but like so many of his fellow conscripts, was utterly unprepared for the visceral reality of war and the enormous personal cost it would demand from him.

No stranger to an extraordinary monologue, director David Mercatali once again demonstrates an assured mastery of the form. Design is stripped right back to bring Max Pappenheim’s memory-evoking sound and Christopher Nairne’s peerless lighting to the forefront, allowing lightning-fast shifts of mood and location as Joe’s experiences slowly come back to him as he lays in his hospital bed after a shell exploded in his trench and robbed him of nearly everything, not least his very identity. 

Thoughts of the life he left behind mingle with the brutal remembrances of life on the front line and the slowly-dawning realisation of his current situation – it is a devastatingly crushing combination yet somehow contrives to emerge without self-indulgence or being overly depressing. Trumbo’s writing burns with anger as it contrasts the quiet beauty of everyday peacetime living with the horrors of the battlefield, questioning not just the morality of sending millions to war but also the need to construct positive narratives around it.

Rand Smith’s adaptation fashions a superb part for a single actor here and Jack Holden more than rises to the challenge. Switching flitting between the escapist flights of fancy and the near-unbearable reality of his injuries, Holden holds the audience expertly in the palm of his hand for well over an hour – pragmatically blunt in describing the dehumanisation necessary to survive in the trenches, wince-inducingly graphic in the details of which he spares us none, heart-breakingly moving in the revelation of how much small kindnesses come to mean.

Though there will be those who disagree, Johnny Gets His Gun serves as a fitting tribute to the senseless loss of life from 1914-18 and all of the wars we have fought since in the name of ‘liberty’. It is a piece of theatre that speaks with direct, unflinching honesty and demands the same of us, the reception of its message of the need to continue to ask searching questions about the way we treat those who served, and continue to serve, in our country’s name. Highly recommended.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Anna Soderblom

Booking until 14th June

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