THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F
Thursday, 03 April 2014

THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F

As humbling as it is heroic, a masterpiece delivered by wounded ex-soldiers alongside professional actors

Written by Georgina Brown
georgina-brown 2805An ear-blasting explosion. In silhouette through a hospital screen, a Marine screams at a nurse he mistakes for one of his Afghan torturers. These days it takes only 12 hours to fly an injured soldier back to Britain. ‘Not all of you comes back at once,’ Charlie F explains later. He wasn’t referring to the leg he left behind.

Charlie F is a remarkable, raw and revelatory work by Owen Sheers, the award-winning poet, novelist, dramatist, and sometime writer-in-residence for the Welsh Rugby Union, which was begun as a rehabilitative exercise for wounded soldiers.

Some 30 service personnel, physically and mentally blown to bits, set out alongside professional actors and technicians, to create a play based on their experiences. Some found it not just therapeutic but developed a taste for the limelight.

Every soldier’s story is as humbling as it is heroic, but the power comes from the low-key delivery, no adjectives, no self-pity. ‘I lost my legs but saved my best friend’s life that day,’ says Leroy. He also kept his military bearing and his wedding tackle, thanks to his ‘blast pants’. Stewart, ex-Sandhurst and top brass, used to command a battalion but, as a result of a brain injury, ‘can’t even command himself’. He hates the new Stewart he must live with. His wife hates the Moslem women who sit muttering outside the hospital, then she hears Stewart’s name and realises they are praying for him.

In an extraordinarily graceful balletic sequence, three legless lads in wheelchairs perform a pas de deux with female dancers. One of several simple songs, redolent of the brilliant verbatim musical, London Road, is composed of a few phrases: ‘Miss you’, ‘Come home soon’, from ‘blueys’ – airmail letters from family and lovers. Similarly, another is no more than a lyrical list of medications: ‘Oramorph, Tramadol, Mirtazapine’, on which the survivors now depend to fight their new battle with pain, nightmares, seizures, depression. As one soldier says, all their loved ones are casualties too, their lives irrevocably changed by the return of the ‘medically discharged’, who are often different and damaged beyond recognition.

There are some laughs too, however: Chris loses his leg on a pub crawl, but can’t recall where; and the rehab place is nice (‘a regular Downton f***ing Abbey’).

In the final scene, Charlie (Cassidy Little) talks of leaving the services and having to hand in his identity tag. ‘It’s a death,’ he explains. Another one. He has joined the largest regiment of all now, that of the wounded. Unmissable.

From 21 to 26 April, Churchill Theatre, Bromley, Kent, then on nationwide tour until 14 June: 0844-871 7620, www.charlie-f.com

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