Robert Tanitch reviews Johnny Got His Gun at Southwark Playhouse, London SE1
Dalton Trumbo took the title of his novel from the recruiting advert, Johnny Get Your Gun, a call to arms, dating from the American Civil War marching song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1939. It was made into a film in 1971 with Timothy Bottoms and adapted for the stage in 1981.
Bradley Rand Smith’s adaptation, a 60-minute monologue, now gets its London premiere with Jack Holden as the young American soldier who fought in World War 1 and wakes in a hospital bed to discover he has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
He moves from present to past and back again instantly, alternating between happy dreams of childhood and hysterical nightmares of war. He is the nearest thing to being dead without actually being dead.
His mind still works; but he is unable to communicate with the nurses and doctors until he finds he can bang out Morse code on his pillow with his head. He wants to go on exhibition and be a visible deterrent to war.
Johnny Got His Gun is a loud howl of pain, a bitter anti-war tirade against warmongering politicians. Cleverly directed by David Mercatali and cleverly lit by Christopher Nairne, Jack Holden never for one moment loses his grip on the audience’s attention. His solo performance, in its variety, verbally and physically, is quite remarkable, a turning point in his career. There is also a surprising amount of humour.