As we count down to the transfer of Jonathan Lewis’ Soldier On, coinciding with the centenary of the end of World War On, we caught up some of the real ex-soldiers performing in the cast. Today, former Bombardier Shaun Johnson tells us about his experiences in and out of the military and onstage. Time to get booking!
Following a sell-out national tour and London premiere earlier this year, Soldier On, written and directed by Jonathan Lewis, runs at The Other Palace from 24 October to 24 November 2018, with a post-show Q&A chaired by MyTheatreMates co-founder Terri Paddock on 29 October and a press night on 30 October.
The play examines what really happens when military personnel leave the army. It follows the journey of a group of soldiers who start acting to help them recover from PTSD. Their words do the talking in what has been deemed “The Full Military Monty”.
Putting the play’s premise into action, the 16-strong cast comprises serving and ex-service personnel, including injured veterans, working alongside other actors, in Amanda Faber’s award-winning theatre company The Soldiers’ Arts Academy cic.
In conversation with… Shaun Johnson
Military veteran Shaun Johnson reprises his performance as Flaps in Soldier On, which he performed earlier this year at London’s Playground Theatre and on tour.
Tell us about your military experience.
My military experience: 12 years in the Royal Regiment of Artillery. I served eight years in a gun regiment, two tours of duty (active service), and three years donkey walloping — that was the ceremonials with the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. For those three years, I used to do all their ceremonial parades, Queen’s birthday parades, Horse Guards’ [parades], all that sort of stuff. So it was a fab 12 years.
My rank was a Bombardier, like a Corporal. The reason I didn’t go any further is because I had a crush injury. I’d signed for 22 years, had the crush injury and then I was med-boarded out, if you will. I was told it was pointless staying in the army because I wouldn’t get promoted any further, so it was quite a hard bullet to bite, actually. I came out of the army, and started to do life on Civvy Street. It wasn’t easy — I still find it hard today.
I was very disappointed that I left the military, and I think that’s where the problems started for me. For many serving personnel who leave the military, trying to get back to where they left their lives before they joined the military isn’t easy. In the army, you’re living in a world unlike any other. You’re automatically back to back with your brothers, you do things together, you think together, you go on tours of duty together, and you just click like ‘that’. But when you leave the military, that’s all gone — you’re on your own facing the big, bad world. It’s not an easy transition.
How did you first hear about Soldier On, the project?
I’ve known [writer/director] Jonathan Lewis for about five or six years now. I introduced Jonny to The Combat Veteran Players, a Shakespearean theatre company I was fortunate enough to be in. I was also instrumental in setting up the Soldiers’ Arts Academy. So, with Jonny being in the range, if you will, he had his play, he brought it in, we read it together and then we cast. What a dream!
What was it about Soldier On that made you want to be a part of it?
I knew it was going to be something special. But also, this is the commemorative year of the Great War, and with Armistice coming, we’re all going to be remembering what happened over 100 years ago. My great-grandfather fought. I’m so blessed to be part of this ensemble, in this production and being able not only to carry the banner of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, which I am, but also to be remembering my great-grandfather in that war and all the others who fought.
Soldier On is a huge cast and seems like quite a tight-knit group. How have you found the process of working with the other cast members?
I think we’ve been very, very fortunate that we’ve got a cast that is absolutely pinging off each other. We couldn’t have made that tour as successful without that synchronicity, if you will. It’s just brilliant. I know many casts don’t get that lucky, but we have. I think we’ve brought a lot of the military into the cast. We’re all learning from each other, and certainly, for the military guys and girls, we’re back as a band — we happy few, we band of brothers sort of thing; we’re back together again. Those who haven’t served are starting to feed into that, and we’re learning from each other and we’re just like that. It’s like being back in the military; we think for each other, we move for each other. Not all the time — my dancing’s still got a way to go. I’m really excited that we’ve taken this up to another level.
What’s been your personal highlight from Soldier On to date?
Learning to dance with two left feet. I’m not a dancer! I’m really glad with what Lily our choreographer has done. She’s used and fused civilian music choreography with military march. She’s kind of taken it out, put it back together and back to front, and you’ve got to learn the new way forward. I’m a little bit chuffed that I’m getting there with the dance because I’m not a dancer. Lines, I’m not bothered about; scenes, I’m not bothered about; I’m just personally pleased that I’ve gotten over the dance thing.
What else does the play mean to you & the audience?
When we ran Soldier On, early in the year, a lot of people came to see the show — it was mostly sold out – ex-military, military, civilians, all sorts. What’s been beautiful about it is what we’ve learnt so far, the message we’re sending out there, because it’s resonating with people right now who are facing difficulties.
Jonny doesn’t just write about those problems for soldiers returning from battle, he also writes about the families who are struggling, as well — the wife of the husband who is serving; or the husband of the wife who is serving; those kitchen scenes where there are tears, anger. We’re resonating, we’re touching all those, and people are connecting back and saying ‘thank you, you gave us something here; you made me rethink my life.’
I think we’re sending the message out that we are strong, and we can do this together, not only as Soldier On cast, but everybody out there as well. I always say to everybody, if you’re ever worried about anything, get in touch with us, or speak to some local support if you’re ex-military, keep tapped in. It’s quite important that there is support for each other, so this is just brilliant to be able to echo that message.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m going to say, I can’t wait to soldier on, and I want everybody to soldier on with us!
Soldier On runs from 25 October to 24 November 2018 at The Other Palace, 12 Palace Street, London SW1E 5JA. Performances run Mondays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced £24.50-£49.50. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE