The Two Worlds of Charlie F

Bravo 22 Company

The New Alexandra Theatre

*****

THE most powerful anti-war messages, in books such as All Quiet on the Western Front, or plays such as Journey's End, have no political content, no moralising, no sermons – they just tell it as it is. Matter of fact, f***ing warts and all.

Joining that number is The Two Worlds of Charlie F, which started life as a theatrical project from the Masterclass charity to aid in the recovery of wounded, injured and sick military personnel. It put soldiers on stage to tell their story, therapeutic theatre, but it has become a powerful voice in its own right.

Owen Sheers' play is littered with industrial language but then again war and battle are a soldier's factory, wounding and death occupational hazards and this is not a playwright's idea of what it might have been like, this is a glimpse of their world, a real world through the words, thoughts and experiences of soldiers who have been there, done that and changed for ever.

It is a world that is sometimes heartbreaking, at times funny, at times plumbing the depths of despair but always inspiring that somehow the human spirit can overcome whatever fate dumps on it.

Among all the emotions is also anger at the lives that have been lost or shattered in our name for wars and causes in which we had no say.

Our guide is Corporal Charlie Fowler, the Charlie F of the title, played by Royal Marine Commando Lance Corporal Cassidy Little, a Canadian from Newfoundland.

Charlie F, played by Cassidy Little with his shrink played by James Buller

The cast of 18 has five professional actors among its number and you would be hard pressed to say which they are but, Little would be high on anyone's list – except for the fact he has lost his right leg below the knee and has chunks of his battle scarred left leg missing after being injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan last year. He is currently at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey.

He is surely has a bright future on stage if he ever decides to leave the army.  Rifleman Danny Shaw, who plays Riflemen Elroy Jenkins, lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan in 2009 and it was fascinating to see how soldiers such as Shaw perfect balance without legs by perching on an aerobics ball playing table tennis with a balloon.

Then there was one of the professional actors Darren Swift, who plays Corporal Chris Ward. Swift was a tracker dog handler in the Royal Green Jackets and lost both his legs in a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. He has built a new career as adventurer and actor.

Sheers and Director Stephen Rayne spent hours interviewing soldiers before finally creating a script based on what they had heard. For the cast their own experiences were often too raw, too emotional to relate as themselves, so they play characters relating experiences that may have been theirs or someone else's – sadly, there were plenty of exoeriences for Sheers and Rayne to choose from

We learn of the reasons, some noble, some desperate, for joining up, of the comradeship and even the euphoria of battle. Then there is the pain and even the deaths of innocents, the villagers, real people hidden under the sanitising blanket of collateral damage we hear so much about.

Riflemen Leroy Jenkins, played by RFN Daniel Shaw, whose whole world, like that of Shaw, was turned upside down by an IED, coming to terms with the loss of his legs

There is the drug induced return home usually to the special unit at the QE hospital where the long process of patching up broken minds and bodies begins.

We learn of the breakdowns in relationship, how soldiers see themselves as two people, the man before and the man after being blown to smithereens, the two worlds.

We hear of the irrational and cruel behaviour to wives, girlfriends and even children, and the suffering and pain wives and girlfriends have to endure as the soldiers and everyone around them pay the human cost of war. There are the nightmares, the inability to sleep, the fear of being alone in the darkness of the night - and the ever constant pain.

Jason Carr's musical score includes an amusing song about the apothecaries' cave of drugs the wounded and injured are compelled to take but taking drugs for pain or depression or mood swings or even all three, and then drugs to counteract side effects of the cocktail of drugs already being taken for pain is a way of life and, along with addiction to powerful painkillers, is just another occupational hazard.

And the drugs reduce the ability to function so, like many wounded soldiers around the country,  some cast members have to balance how much medication they can afford to take for the pain against their ability to function, in this case to rehearse or perform. For an actor each performance is a challenge, for the members of Bravo 22 it is another battle to be fought and won.

There are telling moments, such as the opening when Charlie F swears and attacks QE nurses, his girlfriend and mother, his body in Birmingham but his mind still in the hands of is Taliban captors.

Then there is the matter of fact lecture on treating injuries with battlefield dressings after a soldier, carrying 75 kilos of kit in 100 degree plus temperatures is caught by an IED. It is not just bang, a leg gone and wake up in Birmingham a few days later with a wooden leg and a parrot.

Charlie F displays his new number plate for his wheelchair to his fellow travellers on the road to  rehabilitation

The list of likely injuries goes on and on as the impact of the blast creates a domino effect on the body to the point where survival is a miracle in itself from the shattered thigh bone smashing though the pelvis to the soldier's gun fracturing his own jaw. The final lesson is never to forget to wear blast pants to protect the bits most men would least like to lose.

Like much of the play the scene is full of black humour, perhaps the only way to survive the horrors, heat, stench and fear.

The play, produced by driving force Alice Driver, had two sell out performances in The Theatre Royal Haymarket in January and now it is starting a tour to Cardiff, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the West End supported by the Royal British Legion.

This is no charity gig, no come and support the wounded troops job. This is valid, raw theatre, well crafted and beautifully acted by a largely amateur cast. It is at times gloriously funny, at times uncomfortable to watch, at times moving but it is first and foremost a play, a highly watchable play which has something valid to say and deserves to be seen and heard on merit – particularly by the MPs who voted to send our troops to war in the first place.

 Its standing ovation was richly deserved. To 21-07-12

Roger Clarke

A view from the second front

*****

HAS there ever been such an emotional standing ovation at the Alex than was given by the first night audience for this remarkable story of courage, suffering and the road to recovery endured by heroic soldiers?

And how the cast deserved the plaudits, because many of the actors on stage were actually servicemen and women critically injured by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Afghanistan and who survived with the help of doctors and nurses at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

So it was entirely appropriate that, after a successful West End run in January, the Owen Sheers play should begin its UK tour in Birmingham, and there's no hiding the severity of the injuries.

Like handsome Canadian Cassidy Little, a former marine, who plays Cpl Charlie Fowler. His right leg was blown off just below the knee and his left leg shows terrible scars, but he is able to bring plenty of humour as well as drama into the true story.

And Rifleman Dan Shaw. He lost both legs in Afghanistan, but, in the role of Rifleman Leroy Jenkins, plays 'ping pong' with a physiotherapist, using a balloon, while perched on a large medicine ball, before somersaulting back onto the floor at the end of the game.

 We hear of a wife's reference to her husband leaving for the war as one man, but returning home as another in the 'Regiment of Wounded', the importance of soldiers wearing their 'blast pants', the dream world of morphine-induced hallucinations, and how two women in burkhas knelt in prayer for the badly injured troops in a Birmingham hospital.

There's even an amusing musical number about crippled soldiers taking their many pills, and on opening night a bit of unexpected drama when the actors had to leave the stage for a short time through a computer hiccup. Sound effects of helicopter gunships and horrifying explosions add to the raw realism of this window on war.

Some professional actors are also used in the play, directed by Stephen Rayne and produced by Alice Driver. It runs to 21.07.12, and should be seen by all politicians who send men and women to war.

*Inevitably there is a considerable amount of barrack room and battlefront language in the play

Paul Marston

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