Theatre critic Anne Cox delivers her verdict on extraordinary production The Two Worlds Of Charlie F, which stars army veterans telling real-life stories of their experiences.
I have seen thousands of plays in the 38 years I’ve been reviewing but none have been as honest and inspirational as the astonishing factual-based drama The Two Worlds Of Charlie F.
It’s a remarkable production, made more so by having an ensemble that largely consists of former soldiers who have been invalided out of the army.
Some had their legs blown off by the Taliban, others suffered psychological injuries every bit as damaging.
As part of the recovery process the servicemen became involved in a theatre workshop and the result has been this unflinching and gritty play.
In a world of acting luvvies this amazing new troop are unique. They’re not acting out a drama but elements of their own lives and experiences and it’s a game-changer.
Charlie F brought everyone to their feet during its stint at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre last week. This tour of duty around Britain’s theatres is being heavily supported by the armed forces and the Royal British Legion – and it should be supported by you too.
There’s nothing fancy about the play, no bells and whistles and elaborate sets. There are bursts of gunfire and sound effects that’ll pitch you, in moments, into the heat of battle, but that’s it – and that’s all that’s needed.
The cast adopt fictional names but not fictional life stories.
We’re introduced to Corporal Charlie Fowler (Cassidy Little) whose right leg was blown off below the knee by a landmine.
The marine is in hospital in Birmingham but high on pain and drugs and refusing to believe it. He’s filled with aggression, raging at everyone around him.
Later Fowler stands before the audience. He nonchalantly rests his stump on the arm of one of his crutches as the fourth wall comes down and he talks about his experiences.
He’s soon joined on stage by the rest of the company. Some joined the army because of family tradition, others for the thrill, or because it was the only option left to them.
The first half introduces the soldiers and the second how they have struggled to come to terms with their injuries.
Rifleman Dan Shawty Shaw (Leroy Jenkins) had his legs blown off as did Darren Swift (Colour Sgt Chris Ward). Major Daniel Thomas (in real life Lieut Col Stewart Hill) had shrapnel rip a hole in his brain.
“I used to command 700 men,” he says. “Now I can’t even command myself.”
The last time I saw actor Tom Colley (playing Sapper John Booth and looking like an archetypal Action Man, all rippling six-pack and muscles everywhere) he was standing stark naked in front of me (on stage, you understand, in The Judas Kiss).
Here he keeps on his underpants to be used as a human map as a doctor wielding a red marker pen runs through the appalling injuries a soldier can suffer in the field. I’m left unable to comprehend why anyone would volunteer for the services.
The ever optimistic Dan Shaw says: “I lost my legs but I saved my best mate’s life that day.”
Often servicemen face their biggest battle when they return home. There’s the depression, drinking and violence to overcome, the post-traumatic stress, a whole battery of psychological illnesses and potential for suicide.
But this group, despite the constant pain some of them endure, have overcome self-pity by immersing themselves in this radical therapy. The formation of Bravo 22 Company, which uses drama to aid the recovery of wounded personnel is inspirational.
I don’t know if it has made civilian life more bearable but facing a theatre audience night after night probably requires huge amounts of courage from them and they all deserve our respect and admiration for their bravery – both in service and on the stage.
The cast also pull no punches among each other and do a nice line in gallows humour, comparing battle scars and taking the mickey out of each other. Despite all they’ve gone through they’re still tough, fearless and gung-ho.
Still soldiers. Adapt and overcome is an army motto and that’s what they have done.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is one of the most compelling and powerful productions you’ll ever see.
Sign up for tickets now. That’s an order.
The Two Worlds Of Charlie F is on tour now. Find performances near you
*Bravo 22 Company, The Royal British Legion’s theatre welfare programme, will launch a regional pilot programme at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre this autumn ahead of a national roll out later this year. The programme will be open to all wounded, injured and sick service personnel based in the area and, in a difference from the original project, will be expanded to include the Legion’s wider beneficiary community.