REVIEW: SOLDIER ON (Playground Theatre) ★★★★★

Solider On is a new play by Jonathan Lewis, currently on a small tour of the UK (next stops: Oxford and York). But, it is so much more than ‘another new play with a message’ – it is a masterpiece and a sure-fire box office hit. An extended run, a West End residence, even a feature film, anything is possible.

The ideals of ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘The Full Monty’ are woven into the text – there’s no stripping and no ballet – with a gritty realism rarely seen in such a small-scale production. This is what happens when military veterans tell their stories, challenging misconceptions about the military life, especially PTSD, and its effect on the personal lives of each solider, sailor, airman, wife, husband and child. Through the telling of each of the characters’ stories, we can learn about the lives of those serving and served, the glories of promotion, the pride of wearing the uniform and medals and the impact of doing what was called for, what was ordered by the State. Pulling the trigger, dissolving lives, experiencing the horror of loss and the extremities of warfare.

Not everyone who serves is affected by PTSD and it certainly affects the sufferers in different ways – these stories are told empathetically and carefully – at points a dry eye could not be found in the audience. And yet, this is not a sad play for long; with service, with horror, there is a comradeship develop and deepen between all of the cast. The servicemen and women are members of a close and special family, the wives and husbands left behind also share an experience of being part of that big family. And, as the play develops the audience are given a close look at the lives left behind when the soldiers go on deployment. The wives, girlfriends, spouses and children; left behind, watching and waiting.

These close interfamilial relationships and lifetime bonds are explored deeply in the play, character interaction is often funny, occasionally bleak, damned right rude and bursting with gallows-humour. This intensity of closeness, between the characters, could only ever be formed through those serving and served in the military. The exceptional quality of acting, script, and direction, as well as the production itself, is a legacy for each of the veterans involved but also for the wider military family at home and abroad. Every serviceman and woman, every spouse, parent, and child of the military has a story; and now they have a voice. In this expertly crafted play, Lewis tells their stories with brutal honesty, with passion and, above all, integrity.

Every cast member is deserving of mention, but are so numerous as to preclude this, however given their final standing ovation at the performance I saw, their names will, sooner or later, be known to you. This production is comes as close to perfection as any other and achieves everything it set out to do and more.

Reviewed by Lee Knight

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