Bringing worlds together

The Two Worlds of Charlie F

Malvern Theatres

****

The Two Worlds of Charlie F is shocking: it sets out to shock, to disturb, to enlighten, to move and ultimately to engage us.

It aggressively confronts the audience with the harsh and brutal reality of war and how it impacts the regular soldiers in our army.

The piece centres on Charlie Fowler and a handful of his wounded comrades, it explores their experience of war in Afghanistan and its impact on them and their women.

It takes us through the stages of enlisting for army service, training, the initial shock of arriving in the dry and merciless context of war, first confrontations or contact with the enemy, the violence of injury, the transfer to hospital and rehabilitation units in Birmingham and the painful process of overcoming the traumas they experience physically and psychologically.

The devastating experiences leave an awful and often destructive legacy for the young men and their relationships with girlfriends, wives and children. The play has been written by Owen Sheers in collaboration with injured personnel and is now performed by some of them.

It explores the anger, the violence and psychological breakdown of these characters in a way that shocks and moves the audience in sympathy in equal measure.

The opening scene illustrates the way in which the production arrests the audience. Charlie Fowler has arrived in a military hospital in Selly Oak, Birmingham, after being blown up by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in Afghanistan, he has lost a leg, he is hallucinating and still thinks he is in the war zone.

He sees the nurse, his fiancée and friends as enemies threatening his life. He shouts and screams at them, obscenities abound, he is in extreme trauma.

This scene is followed by introductions as he and his wounded comrades introduce themselves to the audience. There is a good deal of explanation and information imparted so that the non-military audience understand the history of the conflict, the impact IEDs have on the human body and other such things. The explanatory scenes are interspersed with dramatic ones where the use of sound effects is both important and effective: the haunting music, the helicopter/chopper arriving to carry the wounded off the battlefield, the hospital monitors etc.

Legs Eleven! That's the number of lower limbs the eight serving and former soldiers can muster between them

This production is unique in that it brings the military and the theatrical together. There are genuine wounded veterans speaking to us and acting alongside professional actors. The veterans bring a powerful authenticity to the show, the actors add a professionalism to the performance.

Charlie Fowler is played by Cassidy Little, a Canadian in the Royal Marines, who provides the central character among the wounded. Cassidy’s performance is excellent, he has a strong and secure presence and he speaks with clarity.

The other soldiers vary in their clarity and technical skills as actors but they carry huge conviction through their authenticity and consequently they engage our sympathy as an audience very well.

At times some of the comedy fell a bit flat and the pace in some scenes flagged occasionally, but the dramatic interest was well sustained by the varied use of projection, song and dance routines and the intensely dramatic scenes punctuating the show throughout.

There were of course some very moving moments: the telephone conversation between the Major and his wife, when he is unable to say much of substance about his life at the front, was very poignant.

As he finishes the call he observes: ‘Sometimes I think we say more with our silences than we do with our words.’. Similarly the flashbacks experienced by the men when they cannot get horrific images and experiences out of their minds are haunting. As the refrain says, it is ‘Worse at night, always worse at night.’ They are ‘scared to close their eyes, scared to put my head on the pillow.’ The listing of psychological conditions and the medications used underline the painfully slow process by which our soldiers recover. 

As the play draws to a close Charlie Fowler talks to the audience about leaving the army. ‘One day you’re in, the next you’re out.’ It’s a reference perhaps to the two worlds of the title – life in the army and life beyond and outside the army. However he goes on to say ‘Because it isn’t just about leaving, is it? It’s about joining too, right? I mean all of us here…’

He is referring to the veterans joining the regiment of the wounded down through the centuries of human conflict. But there is also a sense that this production invites us all to see ourselves as linked and engaged in the experiences of our service personnel.

They are a part of us and we are a part of them. Their suffering is something we can and should in a measure enter into. As Charlie says: ‘Because we don’t live in two worlds, do we? We live in one.’ We are all a part of the human race. The show has that impact on the audience, who choose to stand and applaud by way of communicating their solidarity with those represented by the military members of the cast.

The show is a unique and powerful expression of something we would do well to take time to experience and acknowledge. It is hard-hitting and not for the faint-hearted or very young!

Tim Crow

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