A world apart brought home

Dan Shaw as rifleman Leroy Jenkins, who, like Dan, lost both legs to an IED going to the aid of a colleague

The Two Worlds of Charlie F

Wolverhampton Grand

WHAT started out as a gala performance by injured servicemen with no real ambitions beyond showing the horrors faced by the wounded, the casualties of modern warfare, and the therapeutic effects of theatre, has come of age. It is now a fully fledged touring show.

That has the advantage that the performace is perhaps slicker and more sophisticated than it was when it made its last visit to the Midlands 20 months ago, it is more at home on stage, but that comes at a cost in that some of the raw emotion, the urgency and the power of naked honesty has, inevitably, lost a little of its jagged edge.

Not that matters too much, there is still plenty of emotion to spread around. There are few anti-war messages as strong as seeing the effects in terms of lives lost and damaged in stark reality. It does not need moralising or philosophical argument. A squaddie with no legs, or an officer whose brain’s wiring has been fried by a head wound is the only argument you really need.

Charlie F is impossible to give a star rating; it is not a play, despite its cast acting out parts, it is not a musical or a lecture or . . . it is Charlie F, a one off. An uncomfortable and at times moving experience as episode after episode unfolds in waves before us.

We have the new recruits full of hope and ambition, the excitement of blueys, the airmail letters from home, arriving and the inevitable dear John letters as the strain tells on relationships.

Then there are the explosions, the mortar attacks and fire fights, unexpected and loud enough to make most of the audience jump. And then there are the casualties, the civilians, collateral damage, or just plain cock-ups, errors of intelligence, those are the deaths that prey on minds, along with the personal hurt and fear of mates and oppos killed and maimed.

The maiming can be obvious, a missing leg or two is a bit of a giveaway, but the damage can take many forms, there is the constant pain from a broken back for instance, a head wound that diminishes the ability to think, mental problems, wounds that might be less obvious than missing limbs but are just as unable to heal.

Most telling and sobering is a matter of fact demonstration of what happens when you step on an IED, an improvised explosive device, assuming it is not laced with pebbles, nails or whatever, off course.

Cassidy Little as amputee Charlie F, and your guide for the evening

 Losing a leg beneath the knee is the best you can hope for. The chances are you will lose fingers, your gun with smash into your jaw and cheekbone, you will get blast and shrapnel injuries and the eylets from your boots will rip into your groin if you are not wearing blast trousers. A litany of pain and hurt  which leaves you in admiration not only for the soldiers sent their by our Government and at the skill of surgeons and staff who put what is left back together at Selly Oak hospital here in Birmingham, the centre for the injuries of conflict.

The rehabilitation is long and painful with the added danger of addiction to the prescription drugs to combat the pain or fight depression, or help induce sleep then there are drugs to fight infection, as well as drugs to combat the side effect of drugs taken to survive.

There is a strain on families and relationships, the anger and frustration, thoughts of suicide, of guilt at having survived, fury at . . . anything and everything. Marriages that break down because partners cannot take any more or give any more. These are the words and lives of real soldiers, some even among the cast, chronicled by writer Owen Sheers.

Many of the cast are originals, led by Canadian Cassidy Little, who has the look of a 1950’s matinee idol. Little, a medic in 42 Commando, lost a leg to an IED in his second tour of Afghanistan. He had a theatrical education and some stage experience before joining the Royal Marines for a bet.

There is Lt Col (retd) Stewart Hill who suffered a devastating brain injury leaving him unable to command men, former  rifeleman Dan Shaw who lost both legs in Afghanistan, former corporal Steve Shaw and Bombadier Gareth Crabbe both with severe spine injuries, Former L/cpl Maurillia Simpson from Trinidad and Tobago with a severe leg injury.

A survivor of a past war Darren Swift, now an actor, lost both legs to an IED, the Provisional IRA’s contribution to modern warfare, while serving in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s while L/Cpl Ash Young suffered severe leg damage seven years ago.

They are joined by actors Teri Ann Bobb-Baxter. Tom Colley, Miriam Cooper, Tomos Eames, Venetia Maitland, Owen Oldroyd and Lily Philips.

Sheers and director Stephen Rayne avoid allowing the play to become over sentimental - there is no Hollywood-style living happily ever after here; they just tell it like it is and the result is stark and hard hitting, real live hiding as drama. It is a production that deserves to be seen after all we are all part of it - the injuries were suffered all in our name. Incidentally the language is of the barrack room variety, no holds barred. To 29-03-14.

Roger Clarke 

 

Another view from the front

****

FROM wounded heroes of the battlefields in Afghanistan to shoot-from-the-lip stars of the stage, the cast of this powerful drama tell it as it really is . . . and in strong language!

Their missing limbs show the horrors of a war that, from past experience, seems unwinnable, but others have paid the price of conflict with serious psychological problems.

Owen Sheers’ play, using some professional actors but mainly medically discharged troops, has improved since I first saw it two years ago, and the message seems even more raw and powerful.

“Do not forget,” urges one of the leads, Canadian Cassidy Little, at the final curtain. The emotional standing ovation from the rather small opening night audience suggests they never will.

Cassidy, who joined the Royal Marines for a bet, had his right leg blown off just below the knee, his left leg badly scarred, and damage to his pelvis and left eye. His life was saved by doctors and nurses in Birmingham.

There’s plenty of humour in the show, and some pleasant musical numbers, as well as heartbreak and battlefield language, while recordings of the rattle of gunfire and massive explosions bring home the terror of war, as do the description of shocking wounds and the value of wearing ‘blast pants’.

A particularly poignant moment, too, when Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Stewart ‘Benny’ Hill, injured when a piece of shrapnel from an improvised explosive device tore into his brain, recalled: “I went from commanding hundreds of men to being unable to command myself” To 29-03-14.

Paul Marston 

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