It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when watching Soldier On, the latest in a series of stage productions featuring former service personnel who are using acting as part of their physical and mental recovery.
This transfer, which has toured the UK and won public and critical acclaim, opened at The Other Palace on Tuesday night, and it is a powerful, explosive and compelling piece of storytelling from a former soldier-turned-actor, now director and playwright, Jonathan Guy Lewis.
Soldier On is a play about a group of battle scarred service personnel struggling with their demons to put on a play called…..Soldier On.
The fictional drama features a theatre director and former Soldier, Soldier actor, auditioning a ragtag group of army veterans.
The real life production stars genuine former soldiers, working alongside professional actors who served in the forces (and, in-joke here, made their names in the hit TV series Soldier, Soldier), and even one actor who starred as the archetypal hero, Action Man, in a Disney TV series.
But the stories that unfold throughout this remarkable play aren’t their actual stories but narrative gained from interviews with dozens of troops and their families.
Because you come to understand pretty quickly that the fallout from serving in, say Iraq, carries on long after they have been decommissioned and sent home. For many that is the start of their fiercest battles.
They struggle with civvy life, are haunted and unable to cope mentally and physically with what they experienced overseas, suffer a sense of abandonment by the services’ hierarchy and, crucially, often take out their anger, bewilderment and frustration on their wives, partners and children.
So I have nothing but praise and admiration for producer Amanda Faber, who, about six years ago, alongside Alice Driver and Gerry McQuinn, created something quite astonishing when they began working with veterans to see if acting and the theatre could aid in their recovery and recuperation.
The result was the towering and inspirational play, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, which reduced whole theatre audiences to tears and revealed to many of us for the first time, the harsh reality of war.
Since then there have been other plays. In 2015 hard man actor, Ray Winstone, lent his name to Driver’s follow-up, which premiered at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre.
Two years later, after much work-shopping the production became known as Bravo 22 Company’s Unspoken, a play, like Jonathan Guy Lewis’s work, that used the real life stories of service families to expose the impact of war.
And Faber’s Soldiers’ Arts Academy continues its work by backing Soldier On.
There isn’t anything new or revelatory in Soldier On, that hasn’t been covered before, except that it is impossible to listen to these stories, acted out with gritty realism from a cast who know what their talking about, without being moved to tears.
In one scene Robert Portal’s Tom, a lieutenant colonel, whose battle scars include a dodgy leg, and prostate cancer, stuns the audience with a heart-rending speech about his embarrassment at wetting himself in public while delivering an address.
The eloquently spoken Portal, who has played many a military man throughout his stage and screen career (not to mention rowing across the Atlantic for charity), gives an outstanding turn as the quietly authoritative Tom.
Inspiring, thought-provoking and provocative, you leave the theatre burning with the same rage that they feel over being left unsupported and unaided, after risking their lives for queen and country. The injustice is inescapable.
The cast for Soldier On features Charlie F star, Cassidy Little, whose right leg was blown off in Afghanistan in 2011 and can currently be seen in Coronation Street mentoring young amputee, Jack Webster.
He plays angry maverick, Woody, who rails against authority and structure. “This is bullshit,” he declares, “you’re trying to turn soldiers into poncy, spineless actors!”
Little is hugely watchable and is fearless in his performance, at one point whipping his artificial limb off, to make a joke.
Over the course of the show you meet PTSD sufferer, the stammering Jacko (Nicholas Clarke) who plays Donny, a violent alcoholic who lashes out at his wife; partially deaf Shaun (Action Man, Mark Griffin) whose Rick is desperate for a reconciliation with his wife, Paula, and kids; James (Mike Prior) who wants to be known as Jenny; Hayley Thompson’s Trees, who suffers from Aspergers and starts a difficult, and often comic, relationship with fellow would-be actor, Flaps (army veteran, Shaun Johnson).
There’s Hoarse (Steve Morgan) who is prone to explosive outbursts of temper; the bubbly Sophie (Ellie Nunn) who is unable to cope with Donny’s violence, and the old school RSM, Len, (Guy Lewis for some performances) who likes everything done by the book, and tells erstwhile director Harry (David Solomon): “You can’t fix them by doing a play.”
Over the course of the evening you’ll laugh, cry and feel the anger burning inside the cast who reveal the emotional fallout from battles in the field and at home.
I walked away from The Other Palace and turned into Buckingham Palace Road to find a rough sleeper huddled in a doorway, opposite the royal residence. “Served in Iraq. Now homeless” said his sign.
Hopefully, one day, these veterans won’t end up on the streets, wretched and broken by alcoholism, drug addiction and poverty, and will get the full support they desperately need.
But, in the meantime, productions like this, using the outstanding talents of former soldiers, are playing their part in helping some soldier on.
Soldier On runs at The Other Palace until November 24.
A powerful, explosive and compelling piece of storytelling from a former soldier-turned-actor, now director and playwright, Jonathan Guy Lewis.