The Other Palace, London – until 24 November 2018
Guest reviewer: Laura Thomas
A superb and enjoyable multimedia show by members of the Soldiers’ Art Academy, presented as a making of’ drama, narrating both the story of a production and the ongoing costs paid by 16 service personnel and their families, following the wars in Iran and Afghanistan in the early years of the century.
Soldier On reminds us that, whilst the memory of those conflicts has faded from the front pages, the price is still being paid, the grief and horror of what occurred made new and raw every day by the re-experiencing nightmare of PTSD.
The cast is drawn both from professional actors and former service personnel, and it is a testament to the professionalism of both cohorts that the joins are invisible, the large company performs as one. After the opening dance, performed with military precision, we go back to the inception of the show as harassed director Harry (David Solomon) tries to put a production together in the teeth of a losing mix of scathing cynicism, non-commissioned bombast and unrealistic optimism from company members.
Somehow, despite all, the show starts to come together, and individual characters emerge from the ensemble pieces in a series of vignettes, heart-breaking in their mundane cruelty, but with the darkest humour no more than a heartbeat away. Cassidy Little is the charismatic assassin Woody, his horror mixed with pride and strangled remorse for the souls he has taken. Nicholas Clarke is Donny, the passive-aggressive bully, terrorising his wife, Sophie (Ellie Nunn), shattering her brittle optimism. The modest heroism of Tom (Robert Portal) inspires. There are too many to name check here, all were excellent. Each played their role with passion and brio and an absence of ego.
Briskly paced, with mawkish sentimentality dialled mostly right down, the play uses dance, movement, song and superb sound and lights to propel the narrative and provide an insight into the daily struggle the veterans face. The dream turns sour, cast members make authentic, damaged lifestyle choices that threaten to torpedo the project. The frustration builds during the second half and there is a danger the work might fail, as the company falls to anger and division. But even during the darkest times, unsung leaders emerge. Shaun Johnson as Flaps, sees hope in companionship for the first time in years, Mike Prior’s Jenny both polarises and unifies. Plot lines that have been bubbling under erupt into violence and discord, before resolving into a coruscating and joyous final number.
Right at the end of the show the writing wavers slightly. Sentimentality creeps in, the work loses some power as a result. An unconvincing fourth wall break concludes an entirely irrelevant sub-plot about celebrity involvement, factually accurate but dramatically unconvincing. But these are minor flaws.
An excellent, thoughtful and enjoyable production and highly recommended.
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