Playground Theatre takes soldiers from front line to chorus line

Harriet Salisbury

Theatrical and military fuse together in the opening scene of the play Soldier On, as seventeen men and women stamp and march in choreographed unity. Back in the 1970s, a series of late-night interviews with Broadway dancers inspired a Pulitzer prize-winning musical which showed the complex characters and dreams behind the dazzling precision of A Chorus Line.

Soldier On uses personal testimonies to similarly powerful effect as its cast of serving and ex-services men and women, and professional actors, come together to address the scars and traumas of the theatre of war. Jonathan Lewis’ script, developed and workshopped with the cast, is tautly precise, and packs humour, clarity and emotional punch. Effectively, the audience are parachuted behind enemy the lines into a group of post-traumatic stress survivors who’ve been dared, coerced or cajoled into working through their issues live on stage.

We eavesdrop on the tentative romance that develops between blokey but sensitive Flaps (Shaun Johnson) and Hayley Thompson’s Trees, who is managing elderly parents and her own Asperger’s. We root for Nicolas Clarke’s achingly vulnerable Jacko as he tries to find a way to move on from gambling, stealing and drugs. In a standout performance, Cassidy Little’s charismatic Woody epitomises the physiological and psychological cost of war; being cheerfully reconciled to his prosthetic leg but incapable of managing his hair-trigger temper.

Each scene is numbered and referenced with military jargon (Recce, Skirmish, Awol), and the play-within-a-play is chivvied into shape by its hyperactive, sheepdog-like director Harry (David Solomon). His character’s history as a pretend soldier in a long-running TV series contributes to the unsettling effect of the play; it’s like watching infinitely receding pictures within pictures. This is a show where ideas keep doubling back and catching you by surprise. It is acted on a bare stage, with a pace, intensity and a level of crackling tension that never lets up.

The Playground Theatre, Latimer Rd, W10, until 31 March