You could argue that this show is critic proof. Woven from the words of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan since 2002, and performed by them alongside professional actors, it has the awful weight of reality behind it. But to grant it special dispensation and to praise it by default, for its intentions, would be to undermine its achievements.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is the product of a community project between the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust and the Royal British Legion, which developed the play based on the experiences of a group of 30 Wounded, Injured and Sick (WIS) personnel. Writer Owen Sheers has taken the case studies of this company – Bravo 22 – and anchored them to the character of Charlie. We watch him deal with the loss of his leg alongside other injured soldiers and their mothers, wives and girlfriends.
The production is best when it’s blunt. In one scene, a soldier stands in his pants, his body covered in pink highlighter pen to illustrate to trainees the damage inflicted by stepping on an IED. Shrapnel will mangle your face, the force of the blast will see your gun break your jaw and you’ll lose most of your leg. If you’re male, and unlucky, the clip on your boot will shoot upwards and cut off your penis. Forget philosophy or ideology – this is where war happens. The ‘great game’ of Afghanistan, the vested interests of international politics, plays itself out across soldiers’ bodies.
This directness manifests itself as a lack of sentimentality towards the real injuries we see on stage. There’s no objectification or war porn here; no incitement to audience voyeurism. In group therapy sessions, the men squeeze and prod the stumps of their legs, one joking that his looks like a bottom. The language is blunt, the emotions frank. The scars – literal and psychological – left by their experiences are raw and painful, and acknowledged, but not sensationalised.
Director Stephen Rayne keeps the set uncluttered and the design straightforward, using shafts of light to emphasise the painful distance between the soldiers and their families, both at war and during the private battles of their recovery. He brings out an easy camaraderie among the performers that derives its power from its lack of polish. Confronting buffoons in bars who ask how many men they have killed, their frustration rings palpably true.
Scenes of anger at itching stumps, cock jokes and tracking down prosthetic legs lost during drunken nights out are where the production is at its most affecting; bravery not set on a pedestal but present in the act of simply making it from one day to the next. This is why the periodic song-and-dance routines jar: they’re too neat and smooth, straining to create an effect when the rough edges are what really count.
The portrayal of an army family composed of idealists, Commonwealth citizens wanting to live where the Queen does, sons aiming to prove their parents wrong about them and men hoping to get laid, hits home precisely because it isn’t mythic. There are times when the production goes overboard in trying to create a connection between audience and stage. They are probably inevitable, but it doesn’t need the patriotic music and swelling strings. The quiet moments speak loudest.
At times harrowing, moving and inspiring – this production gives a voice to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. If you leave the theatre with a tear in your eye, The Two Worlds of Charlie F will have earned it.
First published by Exeunt magazine