THE TWO WORLDS OF CHARLIE F
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th March, 2014
It begins with shadow play. A soldier wakes up in a hospital bed believing he is still at the mercy of his Taliban torturers. “You’re in Birmingham,” says the nurse, but this does nothing to decrease his confusion and distress! It’s a powerful opening in a show that provides many powerful moments.
Charlie F (Cassidy Little) addresses the audience in a monologue and so easy-going is Little’s style we take to him immediately. He must expect that we will be staring at the stump of his right leg so he swings it around and rests it in on one of his crutches. Little is the real deal – having been injured during a tour of duty himself. Other actors come on and add their name, rank, serial numbers and injuries to a litany of introduction. The show is not just Charlie F’s story; it covers the experiences of a range of characters, going right back to why they each joined the army, their training and their time in Afghanistan.
Director Stephen Rayne delivers each scene in a different way, covering a wide range of presentational styles. We get a (mercifully) brief lecture on the history of conflict in Afghanistan – conflict in that country is nothing new – and so the play informs you of facts you may not know but its main thrust is to bring an awareness of the soldiers’ lot on a personal, individual basis. The script by Owen Sheers ties together naturalistic scenes with more stylised and documentary-type sequences; the soldiers are plain-speaking, swear like navvies, and share a dark sense of humour that leavens some of the more horrific details. These are real-life stories and that makes them more hard-hitting than any Hollywood retelling.
There are songs too, here and there, ranging from the humorous song of the Bombardier to the more sentimental letters-from-home number – yet the tone never veers into the mawkish. There is too much harsh reality here.
The cast is a mix of professionals and soldiers-turned-actor, and they are differently-abled as performers. Some sound like actors and some don’t – this actually works to the show’s benefit in some moments, when they are giving testimony, documentary-style, adding an air of authenticity to their stories.
The second act deals with their lives back in England, receiving treatment, physical therapy, medication – and the effects all this has on their spouses and children. It’s not just the soldier who is affected. You get the sense that they may have been better off if they hadn’t survived the land mine they stepped on – but for all its stark horror, the play is somehow life-affirming. Soldiers are more than statistics; they are human like the rest of us. This is not a play about the whys and wherefores of why we go to war but a revelation of what it’s like for the ordinary men and women who do this most difficult job, and you can’t help respecting and admiring them for that.