Playground Theatre, London – until 31 March 2018
Boots, boots, boots, boots: stamping out the immemorial rhythm of army discipline, 19 men and women move as one, expressionless, freed for a time from the burden of individuality. Then, a moment later, there is just one lone figure surrounded by empty boots. In the first of the strong visual metaphors in Jonathan Lewis’ play about ex-servicemen with PTSD devising a play together, a cleaner briskly sweeps the empty, useless boots away. There have been so many deaths.
That ensemble movement is echoed at times during the absorbing, sometimes violent, often funny, always engaging piece: Lily Hawkins’ movement direction is stunning, at times exploding into unexpected violent encounters, at others abruptly bringing the fractured, fractious group together in something beautiful.
The first half closing moment, in particular, sees a dignified officer crippled by MS and memory (played by Mark Kitto, ex Welsh-Guards). Ashamed of his deterioration in that most physical of environments, HM Royal Marines base at Lympstone, he admits his tears and is supported by reaching hands, and lifted flying by an ensemble singing Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’. The heart lifts too.
Lewis – an actor and playwright now but formerly serving in the Army, is known for his West End success Our Boys, but in creating and directing this he focuses on PTSD: the disorder driving too many veterans of our recent wars to the divorce courts, streets and prisons.
It is set in what the reluctant Sgt Major (Thomas Craig) calls a “rehabilitation exercise” – he would prefer some healthy Invictus sport. It is David Solomon as an eager director who has to entice a motley group into drama school improv and “sharing” stories which are still real and troublesome to them. A few are wives or mothers, struggling with their men’s impossible behaviour; one is a nurse from the Afghan front line who cannot forget one trembling, mutilated child.
The edge here is that Lewis is mixing professional long-term actors with veterans, only a few of whom have previous stage experience. Or in the case of Cassidy Little who plays “Woody”, subsequent experience: we remember him and his prosthetic leg as the star of the successful ex-soldiers play Charlie F, and he has worked widely on screen since.
Not hampered, I must say, by rock-star looks and a certain risky energy. In this role, Lewis makes bountiful and aggressive use of that: . you really wouldn’t relax in a drama-school trust exercise with Woody in a bad temper. But then Jacko, Flaps, Hoarse and the rest are not peaceable or predictable either, and the pain and reluctance of real experience of horror is no easy fit with the (sometimes very entertaining) theatricality of the director.
Role-play of their real lives melts in and out of rehearsal arguments, army banter, a few sly jokes at the expense of theatre people and explosions (usually from Woody). A mother greets her returning soldier son: a wife tries to hear a precious five minute satphone call from the Indian Ocean while her children bicker in the kitchen, a squaddie with PTSD breaches an injunction to visit his alarmed wife and plead that it was his medication that had made him violent. And the real experience of the personnel from Soldiers’ Arts Academy melts seamlessly into the professionalism of staging and script. Theatre of war, theatre of theatre. Hard to beat.