Writer: Owen Sheers
Director: Stephen Rayne
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
As we remember the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, our minds are again focused on the horrors of human conflict. Of course, such horrors aren’t confined to history. Our Armed Forces continue to serve in various hotspots across the globe, with the conflict in Afghanistan being particularly costly in terms of loss of life and life changing injury.
With the conflict ongoing, bringing a group of Afghan veterans-turned-actors to the stage to bare their souls and scars may on paper seem too much too soon. However, The Two Worlds of Charlie F. turns out to be not just a powerful insight into the men and women who risk all for Queen and County, but also a truly exceptional piece of theatre.
Although framed around the journey of Corporal Charlie Fowler, who lost his right leg in Afghanistan, this is an interwoven tale of a group of service personnel, each facing their own arduous road to recovery.
There’s a bullish and at times in-your-face intensity that you would expect from frank talking soldiers but listen closely and behind the cocky bravado there are a deeply human and sensitive stories. The fear, the heartbreak of being separated from your loved ones and, of course, the physical and mental pain of having to deal with severe injury and trauma.
Owen Sheer’s script, written after extensive interviews with the veterans themselves, captures perfectly the turmoil these men and women face as their lives are turned upside down. A world used to order, discipline and close team bonds suddenly thrown into disarray by war. Sheer, though, balances the piece well, not flinching from the pain and suffering but also including the healthy banter that drives any group of soldiers. This is a group that have gone through unimaginable pain and suffering but still have the ability to relieve that pain through humour.
In these politically correct times some may shy away from asking what it was like to have lost a leg from an IED but the audience are spared that moral dilemma as the cast talk openly, and personally about their injuries. Scars are shown, graphic descriptions of injuries given and the audience are left in no doubt about what this company has suffered. Don’t think, however, that this is a show playing for sympathy, it’s deeply moving, yes, but it is admiration and understanding that are the overwhelming outcomes.
Stephen Rayne’s direction is pitched perfectly, marshalling his troops with, not surprisingly, military precision. Like any well drilled military company, this is precision performance with actors, props and scenery manoeuvred into position with an almost cinematic flow. Anthony Lamble’s simple set design provides the multiple locations required aided by atmospheric sound, lighting and projection from Colin Pink and William Reynolds.
There’s also a surprisingly effective use of music in the piece, with Jason Carr’s original score providing both humour and pathos. Music is also central a remarkable wheelchair ballet sequence with Anthony and The Johnson’s Hope There’s Someone accompanying what is almost to heartbreaking to watch.
Perhaps befitting of its military heritage, the acting company are a true troop, with pitch perfect performance throughout. On paper they may be described as a mix of military personnel supported by a small band of professional actors but that’s actually disingenuous to the cast, there’s no ‘amateurs’ on this stage.
As the lights fade there are more than a few damp eyes in the auditorium and a palpable sense of emotional release as the audience erupt into a heartfelt ovation. Regardless of your views on the conflicts or our armed forces this is, at its heart, a deeply moving exploration of the human spirit. It not only tells us about the courage these men and women have in bucket loads but listen carefully and it also tells us something about ourselves.
The phrase ‘must see’ is often banded about on advertising posters but in the case of The Two Worlds of Charlie F.that phrasedoesn’t quite work. This is not just a ‘must see’ production; this is an essential to see production.
Runs until May 31 and continues to tour.