Soldier On

Reviewer's Rating

In the darkness of the York Theatre Royal Studio floor, a lone figure, Rickshaw (Mark Griffin) appears. Staring out into the audience, he begins the story of Ryan, the mightiest of dragons, who despite his refusal to unleash his power, was forced into a conflict by the commands of his king. The ensemble, dressed in green boiler suits tied at the waist over black “Soldier On” T-shirts, joins him, and to the rhythm of a snare drum, performs a neatly choreographed and impactful marching routine. As Rickshaw returns to his story at the end of the routine, the ensemble removes their boots, leaving a sea of empty boots as they all make their way off stage. Interrupted by a fresh onslaught of fire, Rickshaw bids goodbye to his children with the promise that they will hear the story’s end next time. The boots are swept off stage to make way for the auditions.

Over the course of the next few scenes, we are introduced to our characters, some with serving family members and others ex-personnel themselves. From their first meeting onwards, under sensitive instruction from director Harry (David Solomon) and management from Royal British Legion worker Len (Thomas Craig), they reveal their experiences within or around the armed forces and of the life-shattering impacts of active service: the loss of a loved one, such as widowed Tanya’s (Claire Hemsley) husband Baz; of limbs, the boisterous Woody (Cassidy Little) having lost his right leg in an IED attack; and of a sense of purpose at the end of service, as experienced by recovering drug addict Jacko (Nicholas Clarke) and Tom (Mark Kitto), forced into retirement once the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis became too debilitating to hide. Yet the most universal loss amongst them is that of peace of mind and of a sense of certainty, whether that be as a result of the mental ill-health suffered by Rickshaw, Flaps (Shaun Johnson), TC (Max Hamilton-McKenzie) and Hoarse (Steve Morgan) or of the agonising wait of those left behind, such as Maggie (Rekha John-Cheriyan), mother of Artillery serviceman Cameron (Mike Prior), Sophie (Ellie Nunn), who lives “in the shadow” of her partner Donny’s (Nicholas Clarke) PTSD or Sal (Zoe Zak) and Beth (Lizzie Mounter), whose partners are still serving on tour. Whilst the workshops initially serve as breeding grounds to the frustration and cynicism of the cast-to-be, they gradually emerge as places of support and escape, through which the characters successfully craft their stories into a performance they all ultimately feel proud of.

As a play which focuses on the devastating effects time in the armed forces can have on the mind and spirit, Soldier On does an incredible job of maintaining a sense of fun, humour and hopefulness. There are in-jokes and banter aplenty between the characters, inviting the audience not to mock their physical or mental afflictions, but to witness the perseverance of those who suffer with them. The jokes very seldom came across as mean-spirited, and it is both refreshing and encouraging to see the acceptance with which James, later Jenny (Mike Prior) after their revelation of their undergoing gender reassignment, and later appearing in female attire, and of Trees (Hayley Thompson) who confides that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, were received. The trauma of conflict is of course omnipresent throughout the show, and the cast does a wonderful job of portraying how survivors must endure day after day of balancing on the thin line between coping and collapse. This is demonstrated particularly well during one scene in which the ex-servicemen deride the military wives and partners for equating their hardships to those who served in combat. Harry instructs military wife Sophie to act out receiving a phone call from her partner Donny during a tour, in a busy household amongst demanding children, to show her experience to the others. After laughing off the ways in which her cast-mates made the call near-impossible, the mounting noise and jeering of “he’s cheating on you!” from the men of the ensemble, she finally snaps, screaming for everyone to “SHUT UP!” before breaking down completely. “I’m sorry,” she weeps “that was too real” before tearfully elaborating that her partner Donny’s mother had become seriously ill during his time away and she had felt desperately torn over whether or not to tell him. This scene, amongst many others throughout the play, showcases the way in which the characters teeter on the edge between good days and bad, between feeling able to cope and unable to bear life, and how this paralysing sense of helplessness is not confined to ex-personnel, but to all those who care about them.

The show employs musical numbers, dance and cutaway scenes into some of the characters’ private lives and struggles to reconnect with their families, to exhibit the far-reaching impacts of the wounds suffered during military service, providing a multifaceted and engaging performance. The rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, which serves as a rallying cry after a tearful Tom shares the memory of the devastating moment he realised that his life would be forever changed by MS, is particularly moving, bringing the first act to an emotional but heart-warming close. The performances are faultless: the Soldier On cast portrays an eclectic band of authentic individuals, united by the hardships they have shared and hope to overcome. Although the volatility portrayed in many of the workshop scenes risks spilling out into over-acting and feels at times difficult to engage with, these are not over-indulged with stage-time and usually brought to a suitable end. The hints of a romance between Flaps and Trees feels somewhat out of place, seemingly coming from nowhere, but is handled well by both actors and takes a realistic course.

Many of the characters are denied a happy ending in Soldier On; it is, sadly, realistic that putting on a show does not patch each person up and bring them a new sense of life. Yet there is hope that this can be the start of something new: having distanced herself and their children from him due to his instability, Paula (Zoe Zak), makes a move towards reunion with husband Rickshaw by accepting his invitation. Thus, as the play concludes, we are reminded of the power of hope, as by reaching out to others and embracing their experiences alongside their own, the characters in Soldier On find a new and palpable sense of community that can begin to make life feel bearable. Soldier On provides a touching yet uplifting story through its combination of compelling performances, choreography and song. It certainly deserved the standing-ovation it received on its opening night at York.