Jonathan Lewis’ Soldier On had an interesting premise. The play features a group of ex-soldiers and other military associates who join together to perform their own original play as a bonding experience to help them through the trauma caused by war, and what happens when you leave the ‘military family’. With a cast made up of serving and ex-serving military personal, it was important to see such a group raise awareness of pertinent issues to the cast themselves. However, Soldier On’s presentation of traumatic stories alongside crude humour unfortunately created a piece with a very uncertain tone.
Soldier On comprises of characters sharing how war has affected their lives, with the promising overarching idea that these stories will organically produce their play. However, these stories are poorly developed, with many narrative threads not pursued or given resolution; consequently, the play had a fractured structure. For example, the character of James (Mike Prior) mentions at the beginning that he plans to undergo gender reassignment. Aside from a few jokes about this, which are often insensitive, the subject isn’t mentioned again until the character returns in Act Two as a woman. The plot ignores any of the challenges that a gender transition could pose, ultimately downplaying its significance. This wasn’t helped by older audience members’ apparent amusement at the concept of gender transition, meaning that the issue seemed trivialised even if that wasn’t Lewis’ intention.
Throughout the play, the humour was questionable. The men’s misogynistic attitudes were supposed to be funny; in reality, this crass style of humour was an archaic way to garner laughs. Other elements of the humour also crossed boundaries. For example, the military commander, Len (Thomas Craig), comments on one of the character’s acting ability with the words that “you’re supposed to have Asperger’s not depression”. I’m not sure if the joke, or the fact that the audience laughed, was worse.
The varied style of the play contributed to the lack of cohesion. Physical theatre and singing were sporadically used, thus not gelling with the play’s style. Furthermore, the choreographed sections were poor but the fact some of the company are not trained actors makes this more understandable. Furthermore, awkward transitioning reduced the flow of Soldier On. Projections were used to break up the play into numbered sections with titles like “going over the top”. This was presumably to suggest different phases in the characters’ lives, however it made Soldier On feel more disjointed.
Ultimately, Lewis had too many characters, which meant their personal stories were skimmed over with none gaining any depth; Soldier On tried to explore too many relationships. This is epitomized in one scene which staged a raw, emotional scene between Sophie (Ellie Nunn) and Donny (Nicholas Clarke), alongside a much more frivolous argument between Trees (Hayley Thompson) and Flaps (Shaun Johnson). It felt unnatural to stage these scenes together since the two conflicts weren’t comparable, and thus their dual expositions distracted attention from each. While a number of the stories had the potential to be very moving, Lewis never gave them time to breathe, and bonding between characters felt forced rather than a natural progression.
The characterisation in the play was very stereotyped, to the extent of causing offense at some points. The character of Ulysses (Androcles Scicluna) only had the defining feature of being Maltese, and his sole purpose in the play seemed to just be the punchline for jokes about his accent and name. He was the only character who was portrayed as having no greater depth than his surface image. There was also too much multi-characterisation. Some of the more nuanced characters, like Sal (Zoe Zak), weren’t given enough stage time because the actress was playing other minor roles. The acting was of a reasonable standard, but with a poor script, the cast’s capabilities were limited.
I reached the end of this play with complete confusion over its intended message. It often seemed to criticise the military for placing people in situations which caused detrimental effect on their personal lives. Furthermore, the character of military authority in the play, Len (Thomas Craig), is largely unsympathetic to the ex-soldiers’ struggles. If this is supposed to represent the general military attitude, the play certainly does seem like a criticism. However, this is unlikely given that it’s a production by the Soldiers’ Arts Academy. If it was an attempt to raise awareness about PTSD, I feel it could have been approached in a more effective way. Whatever its intention, Soldier On became a piece with an interesting concept unfortunately portrayed in the completely wrong manner.
– by Katrina Bennett
*Images courtesy of exeternorthcott.co.uk