Writer: Owen Sheers
Director: Stephen Rayne
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Over 70,000 soldiers have served in Afghanistan since the beginning of the conflict in 2001. 453 have died, many more have come back with serious physical injuries. The Two Worlds of Charlie F. seeks to explore some of the realities behind the headlines, stripping bare the lives of a handful of individuals who came back different people.
The cast is made up of a combination of professional actors and those who’ve seen active service and been medically discharged. There’s something of a grey area between who’s who – especially Marine Cassidy Little who plays Corporal Charlie Fowler, a part that, even in this ensemble piece, can only be described as the lead. Little, who lost a leg thanks to an IED (an improvised explosive device, or homemade bomb), outwardly wears his injury lightly, moving athletically on crutches or a prosthetic and demonstrating a positive attitude to his circumstances. Little has an easy charm, he’s a natural storyteller and delivers much of the show’s black comedy. The show is tightly directed and choreographed, using the professionals to keep up the pace and deliver the necessary vocal punch, especially in the songs (of which more later..). The casting offers a bold sense of entitlement – these are the people who lived it, they can say what they like, make insensitive jokes, they’re allowed to be frustrated and angry.
What makes The Two Worlds of Charlie F. a particularly thought provoking piece of theatre is that it puts the (very) visible physical damage sharply into perspective. The hurt goes way deeper. Until recently, only half of veterans, returning from active service and suffering mental health problems, sought help. In many cases the psychological impact doesn’t emerge immediately, but creeps in as service men and women attempt to make the transition to civilian life. Marital problems, loss of family and social support networks make coming home far from what these soldiers have imagined. There’s a high risk of suicide, social exclusion, homelessness, and alcohol problems. This is the reality behind the politicians’ rally to ‘bring our boys home’. These are the stories that really hit home, the Lieutenant who once led 160 men whose brain injury means he can hardly organise his own life, the marine who can only sleep through the night fuelled by drugs and booze, the anger, and the pain of memory.
All of this, then, sits a little uncomfortably with the format of the production. Those songs, mentioned earlier, are fine in themselves, deftly delivered and accompanied by well choreographed dance routines, but they seem clumsily out of place, jarringly jaunty and unnecessary. That’s not to say that non-narrative interpretation has no place here. A dance sequence with three male actors in wheelchairs and three female non-disabled actors works much more successfully, sensitively illustrating the impact on physical relationships.
The problem with this production is it’s really not clear what it is or who it’s for. The Opera House is a strange choice of venue, with its gilded, if faded, glamour and popular entertainment programme. The house is too big, the stage too wide. The piece needs intimacy, perhaps almost to the point of discomfort, to really have an impact. You need to be able to look into the eyes of these actors and see what they’ve been through. The show will probably play to the audiences who’ll learn least from it, many of whom will have experienced these issues first hand. There’s something important here, and lots to like, but The Two Worlds of Charlie F. is not totally successful as a coherent piece of theatre.
Runs until 14 June 2014