BWW Reviews: JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, Southwark Playhouse, May 23 2014
Joe Bonham, as ordinary a Joe as ordinary Joes come, wakes up in a World War I field hospital and finds that he has no arms, no legs, no hearing, no sight, nothing - an exploding German shell has rendered him a shell of a man. His brain is all he has left, and he uses that to recall his countryboy childhood, his buddies in the trenches and his own uncharacteristic cruelty as he became acculturated to war's dead and dying.
But towards the end of this one-man play - Bradley Rand Smith's 1982 adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's 1939 novel - Joe rails against war and against the old men who send young men into its mincing machine, believing his example would reveal the hideous truth to ordinary Joes like him. The authorities see his point too...
Director David Mercatali's timely production - a howl of pure pain renting the consensus emerging around World War I's centenary celebrations of innocence and honour - is not easy to watch, nor should it be. Jack Holden, young and bright-eyed enough to convince as Joe - paces about the stage, a bundle of energy as his mind wanders hither and thither, only to be brought back to his ward, static now as he counts the hours of the night by the movements of his nurses. Mr Holden will win many plaudits for his performance, which is totally committed and particlarly heartrending when bashing out S-O-S in Morse Code on his pillow, but I felt he could have had more sympathy for the size of the auditorium - there were times when he was just too loud, his body and the script delivering a full hand of the emotional turmoil without added decibels.
Though inevitably narrower in its focus than such monuments as All Quiet On The Western Front and lacking the ambivalent excitement of war's attraction to sme young men explored in Storm Of Steel, Trumbo's work has a personal directness that is deeply affecting, captured very well in a tight hour in a dark, small space. It won't reveal much to those who know already of the hideous impact of industrialised warfare on the frail human body, but, with a growing lobby for "traditional" history in schools and creeping criticism of the likes of "Blackadder Goes Forth" and other "Lions led by Donkeys" viewpoints, anyone wanting to know how the events that began 100 years ago this summer played out at the level of the poor sod in the trenches could do a lot worse than see this production.