★★★★ ‘A STUNNING TOUR DE FORCE’ The Independent
★★★★ ‘A DESPERATE, RAGING POLEMIC’ WhatsOnStage
★★★★ 'JACK HOLDEN VAULTS OCTAVES OF EMOTION' Time Out
★★★★ 'JACK HOLDEN GIVES THE PERFORMANCE OF A LIFETIME' West End Frame
★★★★ 'JACK HOLDEN GIVES A STUNNING PERFORMANCE AS JOE' The Arts Desk
★★★★ 'A TRULY EXCELLENT PIECE OF THEATRE' Everything Theatre
★★★★★ 'HOLDEN HOLDS THE AUDIENCE EXPERTLY IN THE PALM OF HIS HAND' The Public Reviews
'DAVID MERCATALI'S ADROIT STAGING IS FULL OF PAIN AND RAGE' The Guardian
'IT'S A KNOCKOUT' British Theatre Guide
'HOLDEN IS WONDERFULLY LIKEABLE AND COMPELLING' The PostScript Journal
‘TOUR DE FORCE’ A Younger Theatre
‘HOLDEN’S SOLO PERFORMANCE IS A TURNING POINT IN HIS CAREER’ Mature Times
THE INDEPENDENT ★★★★
In this stage adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's 1939 novel, Jack Holden delivers a stunning tour de force as Joe Bonham, the young American soldier who fought in the First World War and comes round in a hospital bed to discover that he has lost his arms, legs, ears, eyes, mouth and nose.
The play, a sixty minute monologue directed with great tact and expressiveness by David Mercatali, is one-man howl of protest at war and the indifference of the military top brass. Reminding you at times of Wilfred Owen crossed with Beckett, it makes a fiercely admonitory contribution to the current centenary commemorations.
The piece operates by harrowingly poignant incongruity. What we see is the handsome, fresh-faced youth in khaki who enlisted. What we feel, thanks to Holden's virtuosic, visceral performance, is the active mind, trapped and unable to communicate in the amputated torso, as Joe shifts between recognition of the horror, the glow of memories, and the desperate discipline of self-imposed routines to guard against going mad.
When he eventually makes himself understood by bashing out Morse code with his head against the bedstead, he's an embarrassment that must be suppressed with his angry desire to live a useful life on tour as an anti-war exhibit, uniquely well-placed to 'speak' on behalf of the fallen. Unforgettable.
WHAT'S ON STAGE ★★★★
After his arms, legs and face have all been blown off during a shell attack in the trenches, a soldier might well prefer to die rather than be saved by surgeons eager to show just how far their skills extend.
But for Joe Bonham, waking up to find himself trapped in a body that's little more than a stump, the power of making any decisions about his life is stripped from him, along with his identity and any hopes for a future as a loving husband and dutiful son.
Johnny Got His Gun, adapted by Bradley Rand Smith from the 1939 novel by Dalton Trumbo, is a one-man show with the superb Jack Holden as the broken soldier. His previous experience in the National Theatre's War Horse might suggest Holden is becoming a WW1 specialist, but this drama is a wide-ranging examination of how a once eager youth struggles to regain control over his own mind in the face of unspeakable physical misery.
Holden presents an entirely gripping account of Joe's agonies, flipping between the open-hearted boy remembering his father's selfless love, and the brutalised soldier spraying a rotting enemy corpse with machine-gun fire to save himself the bother of burying him.
His desperate cries to his mother from his hospital bed, begging her to wake him from the depths of this all-too-real nightmare, are truly heartbreaking – and so is his soldier's horror of a rat attack.
But deaf and blind Joe's gradual realisation that he can identify the dawn by the subtle changes in temperature leads to further ambition. His head-banging Morse code is eventually recognised – but his pleas for freedom are brushed aside. After all, the sight of him might scare other men away from becoming soldiers…
David Mercatali's direction maintains the play's powerful momentum. There's also excellent work from Max Pappenheim, whose sound design allows us to experience the muffled world of a man whose hearing has been blown away along with his ears, and Christopher Nairne's evocative lighting gives fresh intensity to the swiftly changing scenes.
In the programme notes, Stop the War suggests the Government's £50m spend on commemorating the Great War aims to "restore worn out notions of military glory and patriotic sacrifice".
But Johnny Got His Gun' is a desperate, raging polemic against any such notions, with Joe Bonham urging us to recognise how the chance to live means more to a man than any ideal of liberty ever could.
It's a play that speaks for the dead. And as Joe points out, it's not the generals who die in wars.
TIME OUT ★★★★
With the centenary of the First World War now upon us, there’s more khaki currently knocking around London’s stages than in a ’90s Gap advert. But despite the timing, you’ll find no flag-waving, Cenotaph-saluting sentiments in this stirring adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel (adapted by Bradley Rand Smith and directed by David Mercatali), which views conflict through the perspective of its most disposable participants.
American soldier Joe Bonham is the rarest of war casualties – rendered deaf, dumb, blind and shorn of all limbs by a German shell, he regains consciousness in a hospital bed where he lays scared and confused, ‘the closest thing to a dead man on earth’.
Sole performer Jack Holden vaults octaves of emotion as Joe comes to terms with the extent of his injuries, his every bounce from despair to disbelief to nostalgic glee to all-out rage supported by sinister shifts of light and sound.
The decision to have Holden moving freely about the stage rather than strapped to a gurney is a wise one. The microcosm of Joe’s inner monologue becomes a sprawling, vividly rendered playground, offering philosophical quandaries at every turn. How, for example, can a person in Joe’s condition ever be truly sure if he’s awake or dreaming?
By the final 15 minutes, the show’s pacifist undercurrent has become a gushing torrent – Joe has learned to communicate, using his head to tap out messages in Morse code. Needless to say, as a man doomed to spend the rest of his life pondering the intangibility of words like ‘honour’ and ‘liberty’, he doesn’t mince his words.
WEST END FRAME ★★★★
It's impossible to imagine lying in a hospital bed without your arms, legs, eyes, nose or ears, but that's exactly the situation American soldier Joe Bonham finds himself in after serving in World War I. Johnny Got His Gun tells Joe's unimaginable story as he attempts to reintroduce himself into the world.
Marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, the UK premiere of Johnny Got His Gun couldn't be more timely. Bradley Rand Smith's smart stage adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's novel carefully drip feeds its audience information, instead of overwhelming with all the details of Joe's condition; at first Joe appears to be a bright, normal young lad before the extent of his condition is slowly unravelled.
Although Joe's arms, legs, sight, hearing and sense of smell have been taken away from him, his mind remains fully intact. We learn of his past and witness his incredible mental strength as he finds his own unique way of living and learning to communicate with the medical staff.
This one-man play is full-on. From beginning to end its intensity is mind blowing. Jack Holden may be young, but he gives the performance of a lifetime. I often found myself sat bolt upright with my mouth open as I watched Holden bounce from Joe's emotional extremes. I certainly felt drained after the performance and can barely begin to imagine how Holden feels after performing the show night after night.
Impressively, Holden’s magnificent performance and Smith's writing allows the audience to sympathise with the character, but he never just becomes a solider with no arms and legs. An unbreakable bond is created and I often forgot that I was sat in a tiny black space with almost no set or design.
Johnny Got His Gun may not be uplifting, but it is far from harrowing. The play raises some hugely thought provoking questions, it is a remarkable piece of theatre. Joe's story is told with immense strength.
THE ARTS DESK ★★★★
"Johnny get your gun" was a popular American recruiting call in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries and, according to the Irish-American song "When Johnny comes marching home, Hurrah, Hurrah", there should be celebration for him after battle. The Johnny of this story, Joe Bonham, an ordinary "Joe", got his gun alright, but there is no happy ending for him. Aged 20, one day in September 1918, he is saved from an exploding shell but reduced to a silent, faceless torso, lacking all four limbs and the ability to hear, see or speak. In the 120-seat Little studio, Johnny Got His Gun provides a gripping and - surprisingly, perhaps - not simply depressing experience.
The name of Dalton Trumbo, author of the novel on which the play is based, appears on posters for this production as part of the title. One of the "Hollywood 10" who went to prison rather than testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee during anti-Communist paranoia in 1947, he was blacklisted until the early 1960s. He nevertheless eventually won two Oscars for screenplays and was acknowledged as the script-writer for Spartacus. Trumbo's National Book Award-winning novel, Johnny Got His Gun, was published just as Britain went to war in 1939.
A film based on the book appeared in 1971 and it was adapted for the stage by Bradley Rand Smith more than thirty years ago when it won an Obie Award off-Broadway. This production (by Metal Rabbit) marks the play's UK premiere, and coming in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, it is as timely as ever.
Smith, director David Mercatali and Jack Holden, in a stunning performance as Joe, combine to celebrate life, to present the positive aspects of ordinary existence as much as the waste of war. This is no sentimental weepie. Joe begins as an idealist in love with his girl and wanting to do the right thing for America by joining up as a volunteer. He ends longing to die, a prisoner in his body without even a name. We are drawn into the nightmare but sympathy is not enough. Joe is angry; if he can't die - euthanasia being "against regulations" - he'd like to be an exhibit in a glass box shown to the populace to undermine any notions of the glory of war.
Alone on stage for 70 minutes, with no more than a chair and mood-changing lighting by Christopher Nairne to help him, Holden inhabits Joe utterly as he speaks his thoughts aloud. He is equally compelling when he moves freely, remembering small-town life, fishing with his father and squabbling over girlfriends, as he is when furious at his helplessness, inert and - until he hits on the idea of banging his head to convey Morse code - incommunicado. Occasionally Holden slips in a swift, colourful cameo too - a moustachioed colonel or a British Tommy.
The writing is as lyrical when Joe recalls his mother making jam, humming in the kitchen, or the pleasure of lying on his back in the local Colorado river as it is brutal in the descriptions of death in the trenches. His lost senses, especially sight and smell, play a powerful role in these memories. Simple domesticity, family affection and the countryside provide powerful arguments for peace. Joe's fury reaches a crescendo - unexpressed to those around him but vividly clear to us - when the top brass, all equipped with the correct number of limbs, pin a medal on his ruined body. Highly recommended.
EVERYTHING THEATRE ★★★★
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.
THE PUBLIC REVIEWS ★★★★★
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.
THE GUARDIAN ★★★
Brass bands were playing and everyone was waving when fresh-faced, idealistic American Joe Bonham marched off to fight in the first world war. But there are no brass bands and no welcome home for Joe. Instead, caught by a shell just two months before the end of fighting, he finds himself nameless, legless and armless in a military hospital in Europe.
What remains of Joe's body has become a prison from which there is no escape. He is swathed in bandages and unable to communicate, but his mind still runs free, musing on his last night with the girl he loves, his mother baking at home, the sound and smell of snow and a fishing trip with his father. Can he find a way to let the nurses who tend his body know that he is fully sentient?
Based on Dalton Trumbo's novel, published in 1939 at the start of the second world war, this is an internalised scream of pain and rage at the horrors of war and the blithe indifference of politicians and generals. An appalling moment comes when Joe realises that someone is pinning a medal on what remains of his chest.
It's powerful stuff, and you can't help but be moved – and made angry – at a world where those who are asked to make sacrifices are denied a voice. Joe's inability to speak reflects that loudly. Jack Holden as Joe, an innocent sent to the slaughter, more than rises to the challenge of this dense and disturbing one-man show. David Mercatali's adroit production uses Max Pappenheim's superb sound design to particular effect. If the adaptation never really escapes the page, Trumbo's passionate anti-war message is well worth hearing – because the dead can't speak and tell us what war was really like.
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
Dalton Trumbo wrote his novel as storm cloud were gathering in Europe. It was published in 1939, just two days after Germany invaded Poland, and in 1940 it won the US National Book Award, but its protagonist is a World War I US soldier blown up by a mortar shell in the last days of the conflict that killed and maimed millions.
Now, with government funding and the support of the media, Britain is celebrating the centenary of that war’s declaration. It is no cause for celebration. But of all the events and performances designed to mark it now or that will come until the centenary of the armistice that ended it, you are not likely to find a more appropriate response than this play at Southwark Playhouse.
Johnny Got His Gun was first produced in 1982 off-Broadway but only now gets its first UK production. Trumbo’s book takes the reader inside the head of US soldier Joe Bonham and this stage adaptation shares all his thoughts with the audience.
As his war is suddenly ended, Joe at first thinks it is his homecoming. He remembers the crowds and the bands who saw him off to war and thinks of a similar welcome. He thinks he can see Kareen, his girlfriend, waiting to greet him but he’s deaf he can’t hear her, sees his mother in their kitchen baking, the chicken in their backyard but they don’t see him.
Slowly he realises he is dead; but he isn’t. He is wrapped up in bandages. What is happening? They are cutting off his left arm. Why? He needs it. There’s his mother’s ring on it: the ring that he gave to Kareen and she gave him back as a pledge. He can’t speak, he can’t see, he can’t hear, and now he has no legs either.
The wonders of medicine! Those so clever doctors leave Joe as a stump of a body with no face but have kept him alive, still conscious, still feeling touch on his skin, still thinking.
Those thoughts are not just his response to what is happening to him: the touch of the nurses, his attempts to communicate, but are loaded with memories. There are memories of that last night with Kareen when her father caught them and then gave them his blessing, of fishing with his father, of the stench of a body on barbed wire, of the friend with whom another girlfriend cheated; good memories and bad ones, thoughts about war and the makers of war.
“It’s always the same people willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life,” Joe declares, “but it’s time two people had a say in things: us little guys and the dead.”
Pious talk and inscriptions on war memorials so often refer to the dead’s “supreme sacrifice” but it wasn’t their idea, they didn’t make it. They were the offering going to the slaughter—and not just the dead. There were many who came back who paid a horrendous price to go on living.
Johnny Got His Gun was not previously known to me, neither book, the 1971 film-treatment with Timothy Bottoms nor any other adaptation. I was not surprised to find myself in accord with Hollywood blacklisted Trumbo, but I was bowled over by the power of this piece and this production.
Director David Mercatali has done an excellent job, marshalling Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Max Pappenheim’s subtle sound design to support a magnificent performance from Jack Holden as Joe.
Holden is working with a script that surely any actor would want a chance at but he sustains its intensity for some seventy minutes without let-up and keeps his audience riveted. His pace is fast but every word crystal clear, emotion wells into sweat and tears and, though what we see is the handsome young man who enlisted, he makes us feel with the amputated torso.
This is a performance and a production to catch. It’s a knockout. It is not only a searing attack upon war, a work that can stand alongside Wilfred Owen poems and Britten’s War Requiem.
Written when war clouds were gathering over Europe, it looks back to 1918 but is about all war—and not just war, for it also raises the question of medical intervention that may be a triumph for the doctors but leaves a life that has little real quality of living.
A YOUNGER THEATRE
Johnny Got His Gun (directed by David Mercatili) revolves around the story of Joe Bonham, a young twenty-something American from Colorado. He enlists in the U.S. Army to serve in World War I. While abroad in Europe he is faced with the dangers and hardship of war, the side of war no-one speaks about. An explosion in the trenches injures Joe whilst he is visiting an allied camp, and with this the audience is immediately jettisoned into the play.
Joe (played by Jack Holden) is the only character in this 60-minute tour de force, adapted from the novel by Dalton Trumbo. Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation of the famous anti-war novel suits the formula of a one-man show. Smith makes Joe’s plight all the more evocative by not allowing the title character to have anyone to play off, making his struggle to communicate all the more real.
Holden’s portrayal is visceral and gut-wrenching during an (at times) macabre storyline. Joe is rendered to the bare minimum of what quantifies a human, barely kept alive after numerous surgeries; he is made blind and dumb as a consequence of this horrendous war. Without legs, arms, and barely any means of articulating his trauma to the world Joe must suffer in his head.
Throughout this trauma of being reduced to a living corpse, unable to communicate, Joe reflects heavily on his past. Revisiting moments with his family and his sweetheart back home. In America, Joe lived the American Dream of life on the frontier. He was a popular young man with many friends who would spend summers fishing and swimming in the Colorado River. He tries to maintain his sanity, but the flooding of memories at times proves too much for him. He soon realises he might not ever see his family again.
One of the most painful scenes is watching Joe struggle to tell time; he says so eloquently that time allows distant beings to live in the same world. As soon as a human escapes time, they have nothing to live for or against, and Joe makes it his mission to stay in the real world. His anguish is so evident, pulling the audience in, and they too long for him to articulate his entrapment to a nurse, doctor or anyone who will listen.
The 1938 novel seems just as necessary today, as it would have been decades after World War I and a year before the onset of another war. In a day and age when war seems the answer to any conflict of interest to Western powers, one must question the necessity of such violent action. Why is a country’s ‘liberty’ justification enough for thousands of deaths both military and civilian? These are questions Joe is left asking, and it is time someone listens to the cries of a witness who has seen it all.
I am sure it will not have escaped your attention that 2014 is the centenary of the First World War. A plethora of cultural programming based on the atrocities has been announced across the country.
Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger's 'The Letter To An Unkown Soldier' project is underway in Paddington Station. The impressive Royal de Luxe are returning to the streets of Liverpool in July for a five-day theatrical event to commemorate the forming of the city's famous pals' battalions. The National Theatre of Wales and writer Owen Sheers are presenting 'Mametz', a large-scale, site-specific production in an ancient woodland in Monmouthshire that will examine the horrors of the Somme.' Forgotten Voices', Max Arthur's non-fiction collection of first-hand WWI testimonies is being dramatised and brought to the West End later this year. There is no shortage of material on the subject, which the hard-hearted cynics amongst us might quietly suggest is in some small part due to the fact that funding bodies would find it very difficult indeed to come up with a PR-friendly reason to refuse to award money to a centenary project.
In such an oddly saturated marketplace, it is a daunting task to try and seek out something of unique merit, a voice in the crowd that has something new to say, or at the very least a new way of expressing an old sentiment - however undeniably important that sentiment might be. 'Johnny Got His Gun' is adapted from Dalton Trumbo's anti-war novel of 1939, which was also made into a film of the same title in 1971, and then adapted for the stage in 1982 by Bradley Rand Smith, whose version is presented here at the Southwark Playhouse in its UK premiere. It is clear from this lineage, then, that this is not a 'new' story - but it is one that has stood the test of time, and feels as vibrant now as it must have done in 1939, when Trumbo's book won the National Book Award for Most Original Novel.
It is an ambitious piece - a stream of consciousness, 60-minute internal monologue that is delivered by Joe Bonham, a young soldier who has been reduced by a bomb blast to a head and torso only, and has lost his ability to see, hear, or communicate in any way that can be understood by the outside world. He oscillates between struggling to come to terms with the unimaginable horrors of his new circumstance and losing himself in the golden memories of his life before the war. Jack Holden is brilliantly cast as Joe Bonham - a shining, baby-faced, convincingly all-American hero, the boy who would be the perfect poster child for military service if he had been left with a something recognisable as a face. He s full of naive charm when recalling fishing trips with his father, or the idyllic first summer with his girl Kareen, but gives excellent ire and fury when forced to confront the astonishing realities of Joe's new life-sentence of imprisonment within himself.
The creative team assembled by Metal Rabbit Productions have, very sensibly, made a decision to let the denseness of both the text and the subject matter hold their own. There is no embellishment here whatsoever. For set, there is a wooden chair on a bare stage. Army fatigues take care of costume.
Christopher Nairne's elegant and accomplished lighting together with Max Pappenheim's beautifully understated and subtle sound design help us to differentiate between the realm of memory and reality, between space and confinement. Everything else in Bonham's universe is conjoured by the text. In any solo piece, the pressure on an actor is extraordinary - there is no respite, nowhere to hide, no-one to help you out of a tight spot. Holden bears this nobly, and is wonderfully likeable and compelling, giving a performance that is variously an exercise in restraint and a baring of a desperate spirit in tatters via the gamut of everything in between.
Director David Mercatali (responsible for the acclaimed 'Dark Vanilla Jungle') and Holden have clearly done an immense amount of work to create a wonderful rhythm for this piece, which is wildly important in such a literary text. There are moment when the lyricism of the novel - passages of which seem to have made in into the adaptation wholly intact - threatens to obscure the emotion, but these are always rescued from the brink of bombast by Holden's control and quiet grace. Michael Billington has previously expressed concern at the recent prevalence of page-to-stage adaptations, sensing a trend in which theatre is "rapidly becoming a place of dramatization rather than original drama". Metal Rabbit's 'Johnny Got His Gun' is a wonderful marriage of the two, creating a new platform for the novel's gorgeously devastating story and presenting it in a light which also throws more dimensions into sharp relief.
The moral message of the piece is not difficult to anticipate or discern: war is bad, human beings can behave barbarically, every new atrocity is more horrendous than the last because we surely ought to have learned by now. Bonham has a speech at the end which slightly transparently renders him a mouthpiece for familiar anti-war credo. This somewhat overwrought conclusion (a fault of the text rather than of the performance) is less effective than the slow accumulation of arresting images throughout.
The moment Johnny realises that some doctors have entered his room to pin a medal to his prone and mutilated torso; the realisation that his joy in life is now limited to feel of clean bed linen against his remaining skin; the idea that when he finally finds a way of communicating with the outside world, his one wish - to be taken outside - is denied for being 'against hospital regulations'. These are what elevate 'Johnny Got His Gun' above familiar mawkishness and render it so affecting.
If you are expecting to experience compassion fatigue from the smorgasbord of human suffering that you will be presented with this year, you really ought to go and see this. It will remind you of the power of a good story simply told, and why we must never forget to remember.
Dalton Trumbo took the title of his novel from the recruiting advert, Johnny Get Your Gun, a call to arms, dating from the American Civil War marching song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1939. It was made into a film in 1971 with Timothy Bottoms and adapted for the stage in 1981.
Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation, a 60-minute monologue, now gets its London premiere with Jack Holden as the young American soldier who fought in World War 1 and wakes in a hospital bed to discover he has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
He moves from present to past and back again instantly, alternating between happy dreams of childhood and hysterical nightmares of war. He is the nearest thing to being dead without actually being dead.
His mind still works; but he is unable to communicate with the nurses and doctors until he finds he can bang out Morse code on his pillow with his head. He wants to go on exhibition and be a visible deterrent to war.
Johnny Got His Gun is a loud howl of pain, a bitter anti-war tirade against warmongering politicians. Cleverly directed by David Mercatali and cleverly lit by Christopher Nairne, Jack Holden never for one moment loses his grip on the audience’s attention. His solo performance, in its variety, verbally and physically, is quite remarkable, a turning point in his career. There is also a surprising amount of humour.