Johnny Got His Gun, Southwark Playhouse, theatre review: 'Harrowingly poignant'

Jack Holden delivers a stunning tour de force as young US soldier Joe Bonham

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The Independent Culture

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.