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A Brave Face – CAST, Doncaster

Writer / Director: Rachael Savage

Music: Janie Armour

Choreographer: Rachael Alexander

Reviewer: Janet Jepson

The United Kingdom has been famous throughout the centuries for its exemplary armed services, defending both the shores of our tiny islands and the wider Commonwealth lands. We take our armed troops somewhat for granted, they have always been there and will be prepared to defend our nation – and indeed needy civilians the world over if necessary – in whatever the wider world throws up. But maybe now the time has come for us to be less complacent; maybe now we need to be thinking more about these combat-clad young people who are facing increasingly disturbing and vile situations. A couple of years ago the Conservative MP Johnny Mercer stated: “In 2012, we reached a very unwelcome threshold when, tragically, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than were killed on operational service in defence of the realm”. How can this be right? Why are we not looking after the brave young people who return from combat as fragile broken souls? 

Step up theatre company Vamos, with its trademark, wordless, masked style to tell the story how it really is. Ryan is nearly 18, a typical lad with a loving mum who fusses him; a little sister Katie who adores, idolises and teases him; and a Gameboy to introduce him to shootouts. He shoulders his holdall, packed by his mum, and goes off with his mate Jimmy to join the army. Their training takes place alongside the usual teenage tomfoolery, and soon they are lean, mean fighting machines who are marching impeccably and heading out on a troop plane to Afghanistan. There’s proper patrolling with real rifles and the boys swagger a bit.

Ryan befriends a local girl Khatera, who reminds him so much of his little sister back home. Things get a little hair-raising; it’s very hot, night patrols are quite terrifying, and Ryan sees sights that he cannot deal with. Invalided home with a damaged hand (done amazingly effectively by Vamos, mainly by red lighting), Ryan struggles to adapt to civilian life. His loving family try their best, but he can only shun them; he is abusive to visiting army officers; nights out turn into drinking binges bringing out all the worst in him; and the paper forms (which he can’t even fill in because of his damaged hand) and ‘helpful’ leaflets threaten to swamp him. His mum gets him a job at the local supermarket, but he goes completely to pieces when a sudden innocent noise sends him scurrying for cover under a display shelf. Ryan has hit rock bottom. The audience watches his meltdown with horror. It is only when he realises the profound effect that his behaviour is having on young Katie, that he begins to emerge from his traumatic state. His defences finally break, and his tears fall; they are comforting one another, laughing and crying together. Maybe his life will be worth living now.

Vamos has tackled the disturbing subject of post-traumatic stress excellently. There are only five actors: James Greaves (considerably older than the 18-year-old Ryan he plays), Joanna Holden, Sean Kemp, Angela Laverick and Rayo Patel, and they are all amazing. No words are spoken of course, and the mask faces are frozen in predetermined expressions, but the message comes across loud and clear. Their every single movement, however small, has meaning and adds to the overall impression and story. The set is very simple, wired boxes, large and small, adapt as shelving, doors, buildings and anything else required. The lighting – work of Matt Clutterham – is very effective. There are no loud bangs or firing in the war zone, but the lighting says it all. There is a constant soundtrack of music that sets the mood as it progresses – in fact, the frantic, panicky low beat in Ryan’s meltdown puts everyone at unease.

Go find A Brave Face if you can. On the night of this review at CAST in Doncaster, there were far too many seats unoccupied. Everyone needs to appreciate what our forces personnel go through in their normal working day, and accept that no one can expect to come through that totally unscathed. This work illustrates that even with a loving family and friends, returning heroes can and will suffer flashbacks, fear, loss of confidence and feelings of worthlessness. It is a sweet touch to use a young sister rather than a partner or lover as the person who pulls Ryan through his despair. Well-meaning help is out there, but all too often it is not effective. Only time and patience will heal, but sadly for some, that time does not come.

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Writer / Director: Rachael Savage Music: Janie Armour Choreographer: Rachael Alexander Reviewer: Janet Jepson The United Kingdom has been famous throughout the centuries for its exemplary armed services, defending both the shores of our tiny islands and the wider Commonwealth lands. We take our armed troops somewhat for granted, they have always been there and will be prepared to defend our nation – and indeed needy civilians the world over if necessary – in whatever the wider world throws up. But maybe now the time has come for us to be less complacent; maybe now we need to be thinking…

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