Mark plays Rickshaw in the stage play by Jonathan Guy Lewis
On stage: 1 March 2018
14th March-31st March 2018 @ Playground Theatre, London
4-7 April 2018 @York Theatre Royal
9-20 April 2018 @The North Wall Arts Centre
Play by: Jonathan Guy Lewis
"I though the play was fantastic. There were moments I had to fight back the tears as it was so emotional and it really captured the realities of living with PTSD and also from the families point of view. Saying that, it was also really funny and it reminded me so much of the camaraderie of being in the forces which brought a smile to my face. I can really see this play on a much bigger stage, it would work so well."
-Tickets For Troops Member
"Solider On is a new play by Jonathan Lewis, currently on a small tour of the UK (next stops: Oxford and York). But, it is so much more than ‘another new play with a message’ – it is a masterpiece and a sure-fire box office hit. An extended run, a West End residence, even a feature film, anything is possible.
The ideals of ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘The Full Monty’ are woven into the text – there’s no stripping and no ballet – with a gritty realism rarely seen in such a small-scale production. This is what happens when military veterans tell their stories, challenging misconceptions about the military life, especially PTSD, and its effect on the personal lives of each solider, sailor, airman, wife, husband and child. Through the telling of each of the characters’ stories, we can learn about the lives of those serving and served, the glories of promotion, the pride of wearing the uniform and medals and the impact of doing what was called for, what was ordered by the State. Pulling the trigger, dissolving lives, experiencing the horror of loss and the extremities of warfare.
Not everyone who serves is affected by PTSD and it certainly affects the sufferers in different ways – these stories are told empathetically and carefully – at points a dry eye could not be found in the audience. And yet, this is not a sad play for long; with service, with horror, there is a comradeship develop and deepen between all of the cast. The servicemen and women are members of a close and special family, the wives and husbands left behind also share an experience of being part of that big family. And, as the play develops the audience are given a close look at the lives left behind when the soldiers go on deployment. The wives, girlfriends, spouses and children; left behind, watching and waiting.
These close interfamilial relationships and lifetime bonds are explored deeply in the play, character interaction is often funny, occasionally bleak, damned right rude and bursting with gallows-humour. This intensity of closeness, between the characters, could only ever be formed through those serving and served in the military. The exceptional quality of acting, script, and direction, as well as the production itself, is a legacy for each of the veterans involved but also for the wider military family at home and abroad. Every serviceman and woman, every spouse, parent, and child of the military has a story; and now they have a voice. In this expertly crafted play, Lewis tells their stories with brutal honesty, with passion and, above all, integrity.
Every cast member is deserving of mention, but are so numerous as to preclude this, however given their final standing ovation at the performance I saw, their names will, sooner or later, be known to you. This production is comes as close to perfection as any other and achieves everything it set out to do and more. "
-Lee Knight -WestEndWilma.com
REVIEW: SOLDIER ON (Playground Theatre) ★★★★★
"Something remarkable is happening at the Playground Theatre. This newest of venues on the London fringe, inhabiting a converted bus garage up Latimer Road, just a few yards from Westway and, beyond that, the charred remains of Grenfell Tower. A kind of cultural rebirth. Just as the space underneath the motorway buzz with the activity of sportsmen on the floodlit astroturf pitches, so too does the once industrial space of the Playground positively hum with creativity and innovation. Having burst upon the scene a few months ago with a memorable staging of ‘Picasso’, we now get a new work from the practised pen of Jonathan Lewis, which, in his own production, is every bit as arresting and unusual.
Lewis, who trained as a soldier before moving into acting as a career – in which he has been distinguished and successful, long ago also turned his attention to writing about military life, amongst many other subjects, and he has enjoyed seeing his 1982 hit ‘Our Boys’ recently revived in the West End. Now, he turns over the often treated topic of PTSD, but in an original and novel way: combining actual veterans (some with drama training, some without) with professional actors, he has created a remarkable company of 19 to fill the space with a kind of therapy session for those afflicted by the phenomenon, directly or indirectly, as sufferers or as family members, spouses, colleagues. Having researched the work carefully over the past two years, including a verbatim-based workshop, thanks to the hard work and belief of producer Amanda Faber and her Soldiers Arts Academy, the play now comes to London as a meticulously scripted and vividly dramatised event into which paying audiences are invited to stray.
And we do feel as if we are intruding. The intensity, the realness of the experience is so poignant that we feel first of all either numbed by its power, or, and perhaps this is the more widely felt reaction, drawn into complicity with what is happening around us. After all, it is the British public who elected the representatives who voted to send the armed forces into Afghanistan and Iraq, where interminable warfare has ensued, with no end in sight, nor any tangible point emerging from the nearly ceaseless loss of life and continuing injuries (most of which, of course, have been born by the Afghans and Iraqis, whose voices are not really heard in this play). So, rather akin to ‘Coming Home’ and other such American dramas of the relentless pain and trauma of the equally fatuous and dismal Vietnam escapade, the play asks us to observe the boys and girls of Britain marching back to the home front in psychological and physical tatters.
David Solomon here plays a director, Harry, whose job it is to rehearse a group of affected vets present a play about … PTSD. So, the actors appear ont he stage, to work on their scenes, and sometimes appear to be in their ‘own’ world, apart from the pretense of theatre. Whether in the fierce, petrified stare of Zoe Zak, or in the halting utterances of Steve Morgan, the bull-like, charging interventions of Cassidy Little’s prosthetic-user (he joshes that he’s A.W.O.L.: Acting With One Leg), the company create a powerfully edgy atmosphere, fluidly encompassing a truly epic range of moods and scale, from uniformed square bashing to intimate scenes of tender affection or domestic conflict. Added to the protean direction of Lewis, Lily Howkins’ choreography and assistant direction and movement are an inseparable match for everything the author does: it is a thrill in itself to see this at work.
The team draw such wonderful truthfulness from the cast, that it is hard, sometimes, to know where all this action springs from: surely, it must come from them? With no decor to hide amongst, only an empty space, and occasional projections (Harry Parker, whose verses also adorn the published text), the field is open for Hayley Thompson, Androcles Scicluna, Mike Prior, Ellie Nunn, Lizzie Mounter, Max Hamilton-Mackenzie and Bryan Michael Mills (who also created the musical score, and Max cooks up the sound scape, along with Matteo di Cugno), Shaun Johnson, Rekha John-Cheriyan, Claire Hemsley, Mark Kitto (extraordinary, as a sufferer from MS, especially in a remarkably tense choreographic episode), Mark Griffin, Stephanie Greenwood, Thomas Craig and Nicholas Clarke all to do their respective bits to bring the work alive. Sophie Savage dresses them all superbly, and Mark Dymock lights everything with appropriately alternating bold and ‘ordinary’ effects.
Yes, many of the short scenes have a bold, soap-opera-esque quality to them, but that is completely right given the simultaneous grandeur and commonness of the subject. It is also extraordinarily well thought out as a tactic to dissemble: it becomes impossible to tell who the trained actors are and who the amateurs. This confusion reaches especial heights in the musical interludes, and above all in the gripping choral finale to the first half, in which the musical direction of Oli Rew achieves a massive hit: our spirits are lifted as they are meant to be by the human strength of the voices we hear. The musical score by Max Hamilton-Mackenzie and Bryan Michael Mills
The missing element in the drama, if there is one, is that of the people giving the orders. This is a play about those who receive, implement and carry out their instructions. The highest ranks present – colonel, squadron leader – are not those of the decision-making kind. They, in their own words, ‘get things done’. And how. Handed the impossible objective of pacifying Afghanistan by force (something which has only been achieved by one Westerner, Alexander the Great, and not for long), the blood which is then spilt is on their hands, and a trouble to their consciences, not a problem for those far away in Washington and Westminster who sent them there on this meaningless and completely unachievable mission.
Meanwhile, the troops continue to discuss Helmand as if it were Herefordshire, innocently, blindly talking about how they will apply western methods to settling into the place, and with not a shred of irony. In 1980, the Soviet Union, a superpower with a long land frontier with the country, invaded Afghanistan to prop up the tottering central government. They lasted a few years. And then they packed up their bags and left, ignominiously. Shortly thereafter, a veteran of that ill-fated misadventure made a film about a detachment of soldiers stuck in a death-trap of a position, ‘9th Company’. There is a scene in it in which the political instructor begins by telling the recruits, ‘Nobody has ever succeeded in conquering Afghanistan’. Ruefully, he glares at the young, fresh faces of the volunteers, none of whom – it is plain – even begins to grasp the import of what he is saying. And then, with a bitter sigh, he gets them to intone the rote-learnt propaganda messages that have brought them there. The same messages that the Americans and British repeated, with equal lack of success, when they took it upon themselves, for reasons which I cannot possibly begin to understand, to take up the job the Russians had wisely abandoned.
We hear those mantra echoed in this script, too. And nothing has changed. Nothing at all. Except for many hundred thousand more Afghan and Iraqi deaths, and some hundreds of Britons killed and injured in a sequence of botched wars that have sent a seismic wave of disruption through the entire islamic world. These conflicts have shaken the southern flank of Russia and of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and also propelled a massive wave of refugees into Europe. And if anybody today is concerned at why Russia seems a bit miffed at Britain, then they could do worse than to look long and hard at what our troops have done and are continuing to do in that part of the world, with the support of the British public.
Of course, that may not be ‘the message’ of this play, but when a drama so effectively forces us to look at and think about human suffering in this way, who knows where the audiences’ imaginations may lead them. Some people may conclude that possibly, just possibly, the way that military force is used by the British government deserves some reconsideration, even change. We shall have to wait and see. Somehow I doubt that the voice of wisdom will be heard much in our halls of power. Our leaders would sooner re-invade Russia (they’ve already done it twice: 1918, 1854, and other western countries did the same in 1941, 1914, 1812) than back down. Of course, the British military is in no position to undertake such an ambitious move. Instead, it must content itself with attacking smaller, weaker targets, like Afghanistan and Iraq. But, even then, it can’t beat them. That must really hurt.
-Julien Eaves BritishTheatre.com
REVIEW: Soldier On, Playground Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭
Nicholas Clarke -Jacko (&Jonny)
Thomas Craig -Len
Stephanie Greenwood -Understudy sharing the role of Tanya (& Sonya)
Mark Griffin -Rickshaw
Max Hamilton -TC
Lily Howkins -Tanya (&Sonya)
Mark Kitto -Tom
Rekha John-Cheriyan -Maggie
Shaun Johnson -Flaps
Cassidy Little -Woody
Lizzie Mounter -Beth (&Chrissy)
Steve Morgan -Hoarse
Ellie Nunn -Sophie
Mike Prior -James
David Soloman -Hari
Hayley Thompson -Trees
Zoe Zak -Sal (&Paula)
Bryan Michael Mills -Understudy
"One thing is certain about PTSD: it’s overdiagnosed. On the other hand, if you are a sailor who survived the burning of HMS Sheffield, a soldier who has been under fire in Helmand for 30 days continuously, or have seen your mate having both his legs blown off by an improvised explosive device, then, yes, anger, nightmares and alcohol misuse might well follow: PTSD. But it can be dealt with, mercifully.Such is the subject of Jonathan Lewis’s Soldier On, a dramatisation of real-life stories from the military, with a troupe of damaged veterans trying to stage a play about their experiences. Don’t be put off by this gimmicky-sounding setup — it works a treat. Lewis also wrote the acclaimed Our Boys a while back, and obviously has a bit of a Kiplingesque affinity for soldiers (though not in a “young guardsman in St James’s Park” kind of way, you understand).
Several members of the cast are former servicemen, including Mark Kitto (Welsh Guards, served in Northern Ireland), Max Hamilton-Mackenzie (Royal Green Jackets, Kosovo), Shaun Johnson (Royal Artillery, Northern Ireland), Cassidy Little (42 Commando, Afghanistan), Steve Morgan (army reservist, Afghanistan), and Hayley Thompson (Royal Army Medical Corps).This lends a rock-solid sense of authenticity, and the other actors give entirely credible performances as well. There isn’t a weak link among them. The actresses are also compelling, especially Lizzie Mounter as the fiery Welsh Beth, Ellie Nunn as the Sloaney Sophie and Zoe Zak as Sergeant Sal.
One of her monologues is as haunting as any in the play: as a medic in Afghanistan, she takes a little girl, two or three years old, into her lap to try to comfort her. The little girl has just had her hands blown off by a roadside bomb, and both her parents have been killed. She won’t stop screaming and crying, then her bandaged stumps start to bleed again.
If these are the levels of almost unimaginable horror that provoke genuine PTSD, then it only makes the exaggerated claims of “victims” in ordinary life more obnoxious. On top of that, as always among soldiers, there is also the survival mechanism of gallows humour — even about roadside bombs.
‘“You’re about as sensitive as a f****** IED.”
“An IED is sensitive, you stupid f***wit.”
Despite the horrors, Soldier On is very, very funny, especially in the riotous workshops when the whole bunch get together to rehearse under the benevolent but exasperated tutelage of their director, Harry (David Solomon). There’s a constant threat of fistfights breaking out, inter-regimental insults flying, and reproducing any of the machinegun dialogue would involve a lot more asterisks — but f*** me, it’s funny.
It loses a little steam towards the end, but it remains revelatory nevertheless. A broader reservation: in modern theatreland, PTSD is about the only subject you encounter with regard to soldiers or matters military. It’s the same on TV. The sensitive classes who produce today’s dramas are only interested in soldiers as victims — despite the staunch rallying cry here of “Don’t be a victim!”, and a splendidly upbeat climax.
What you are never going to see on a modern stage or screen is a play about heroism, comradeship, sacrifice, even the raw (if, for some civilians, tasteless and taboo) thrill of combat. You won’t see any exciting, heart-pounding recreations of some of the triumphs of British forces in recent years, such as the gruelling Operation Barras by the SAS in Sierra Leone, the Victoria Cross-winning actions of Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry in his Warrior armoured vehicle, or the siege of the Afghan fortress of Qala-i-Jangi.
There’s a sense that the only kind of soldiers we should pay attention to now aren’t the professional, highly trained combat forces who perform so outstandingly when put to the test, but those damaged souls who return home in need of care. Somehow, I can’t help thinking that this ties in with the way normal, energetic boys are treated in our anxious schools today.
For all that, Soldier On is a terrific piece of work, currently produced by the wonderful Soldiers’ Arts Academy charity. But it needs, and deserves, a lot more support. If someone doesn’t pick this play up and bring it to a full-sized West End theatre soon, then there really is no justice for our troops."
-Christopher Hart -The Times Review
Playground Theatre, London W10, then touring
"Boots, boots, boots, boots: stamping out the immemorial rhythm of army discipline, nineteen 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."
REVIEW: SOLDIER ON (Playground Theatre) ★★★★
"The Soldiers’ Arts Academy CIC provides a platform for veterans injured (mentally or physically) during their time in service. It enables them to recover, to train in the arts, and to transition back into work. Five veterans and others from the military merge seamlessly with professional actors to make a huge ensemble cast of nineteen; the roaring standing ovation was for all of them.
Written and directed by Jonathan Lewis, the casting has nonetheless left an indelible mark. Details like the soldier’s wife at home, rehearsing in her mind the cold knock of “I’m sorry to inform you”, are painfully observed and very moving. A ballet sequence where a one-legged ex-soldier (Cassidy Little) gracefully lifts his partner says more than words could.
Overall though, it’s a very funny comedy. In a profoundly ‘meta’ move, the story centres around director Harry (David Solomon) and his constantly thwarted attempt to put together a devised piece about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the military, starring ex-military performers. With the story taking place largely in a village hall, the no-set, barn-like Playground Theatre works brilliantly.
With loud bangs and gunfire, this new work is (ironically) not necessarily suitable for sufferers of PTSD. The short and varied scenes whip along, but at two and a half hours, it’s clear that some parts could be cut. Overall though, a very exciting new work and an unforgettable experience."