Theatre in Wales

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The Best of Touring Theatre

The Two Worlds of Charlie F- Bravo 22 Company , Sherman Cymru, Cardiff , July-26-12
The Best of Touring Theatre by The Two Worlds of Charlie F- Bravo 22 Company “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” is a unique work for theatre. Sparked by a visit in December 2010 to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital by producer Alice Driver it is a partnership between the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust and the Royal British Legion. It is the first time for the Legion to embrace performance as a tool in the MOD’s Defence Recovery Capability programme. It is not the first time theatre and acting has been employed for recuperative purpose. But, while that may be the goal at its centre “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” works as theatre for an audience. It works magnificently.

The reason that it works is simple. Theatre is collaboration and the material is a fusion of performer-participant, director and writer. Verbatim theatre has a role in theatre but it has its limits too. Although the subject matter is derived from the participants it reaches far beyond verbatim theatre. The challenge faced by the writer has been a rare one; not just to write for an audience, but to be authentic to his cast, in the knowledge that if he fails to be real to them they have every freedom to leave.

The process too has been uncommon. Director Stephen Rayne has spent three weeks in rehearsal without a script, drawing out the experiences, working on improvisations. Owen Sheers has had sight of the work, first hand and on video. The script is then a result of two winter weeks in a Black Mountain valley.

The story follows a simple trajectory; recruitment, training, action, hospitalisation, recuperation and aftermath. Sheers’ script is without sentimentality or mawkishness, as it has to be. The reasons for joining up are shown to be as various as they come, covering the span from long conviction to the near random. There is naivete, a vague wish after 9/11 to “help sort it out.” For one recruit it is family tradition and he is following father, grandfather and great grandfather. “Even my nan was an ack ack gunner” he says.

Jason Carr’s music and Lily Phillips’ choreography are crucial. A Bombardier leads his trainees in a song that has cadences of Musical Hall jollity. “I am not your friend” he sings “Pain is pleasure/ Tell your brain.” At base in Afghanistan fifteen members of the cast sprawl around reading letters from home. Stephen Rayne achieves a scene of compelling sweetness. In the second act the nurses begin a surreal anthem to all the medications that sustain, or part-sustain, the damaged patients. All join in to make it a kind of chorale.

A play like this will have its documentary aspect. But it is kept in balance with displays of resilience and humour. Amidst the banter and pain of Selly Oak’s recuperation unit one character is agitatedly on his mobile. He is chasing the Black Lion in search of a prosthetic leg gone astray. You’ll know it, he says as if there were many, by the brand of trainer on its foot. A nurse walks by with some limbs and Charlie grabs one with the offering “There you go, Cinderella.”

But in the first act a soldier strips down to his boxers. An instructor takes a marker pen and begins to draw on the exposed body just what an IED will do. It goes on, and it goes on. Time and again the production exposes the legacy of pain. Children are bewildered by the side-effects of a father’s medication. Two actors compare the quality of the surgical work on their stumps, and produce the loudest laugh-out line of the evening. But the most affecting testimony comes from one of the many with invisible wounds. He is on video giving testimony in the most limpid of language. Brain damage has created a person who is wholly different from the one who has lived his first twenty-nine years.

Theatre in Britain has had a good record in dramatising the wars of the new century. At least twenty productions have lit up different views and different perspectives. One has played before diplomats and policy-makers in Washington DC. But “The Two Worlds of Charlie F” is different because it is the soldier’s view. The speed of reclaiming the wounded from battle terrain to hospital has no precedent in warfare. “When you come back that quick” says Charlie “Not of all you comes back at once.”

“The Two Worlds of Charlie F” breathes a sense of fidelity. In Owen Sheers’ words “It had to have an unflinching gaze.” Conflict is unsparingly reduced to its fundamentals. “I was a dealer of death” says Charlie. Of the soldiers bodies “They try to take ours apart. We try to take theirs apart. It’s that simple.”

The cast is eighteen-strong. Stephen Rayne has sifted the company with a few professional actors. It is tribute to the process of making actors from soldiers that the trained actors are invisible. It is a company production. But Cassidy Little, originally from Newfoundland, endows Charlie with a dry and wry humanity. The process of discharge from the Services is brief. Its symbolic heart is the handing over of the ID and it is the production’s heart as well: “It takes seconds to hand over the ID. It can take years to take off that uniform.”

Stephen Rayne opens his second act on a note of extraordinary lyricism. The reviewer could describe it but the words would be insufficient. Theatre, on occasion, needs to be left to be itself, triumphantly.

The production’s next appearance is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before a return to London.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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