The power of advertising is usually associated with persuading us to buy fast food, overpriced pants or change insurance companies. The Two Worlds of Charlie F shows that its persuasiveness is also well understood by the armed forces. After all, if you’re trying to persuade people to get blown up for Britain it’s not a bad idea to have slick, cleverly-worded adverts that focus attention on other aspects of the job.
Writer Owen Sheers’ piece, based on a concept by Alice Driver has already played in the UK and Canada, receiving standing ovations and winning the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Maybe in the future service men will have to sign forms saying they will not act in plays about their military escapades, but currently The Two World’s of Charlie F is playing at the Richmond Theatre in South West London. It follows the experiences of several British soldiers pre and post injury. We hear why they joined the army. One fell for the Be the Best slogan. Another walked straight into the trap laid by the Royal Marine’s claim that 99.9% needn’t apply. If the military were into honesty then their slogan might be Join the Navy, get shot at around the world, but that doesn’t capture the glamour that keeps recruits signing up for (in some cases) 22 years of chances to be killed for your country. Or even someone else’s country, as we learn that many members of the British army are from Commonwealth countries.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F resets some of the balance between real life and MoD propaganda. The image of soldier-as-macho-hero and the military as fun in the sun is ousted right from the start. Instead the soldier is shown as a broken and maimed human being – and the fun in the sun is rehab in Solihull.
Cassidy Little creates the likeable Corporal Charlie Fowler. We first see him in silhouette, believing the British nurse offering him water is a Taliban soldier trying to kill him. The script is based on interviews with servicemen and has the ring of veracity, although the obscenity vocabulary feels cleaned up. Little gives a monologue introduction, but what he says is less important than the way he nonchalantly rests the stump of his right leg on his crutch.
The use of injured soldiers and the sight of their injuries is what gives this Stephen Rayne directed production its unique selling point. The script is not only taken from the memories of injured soldiers, it is played by injured soldiers – at least to some extent. The men who’ve had their legs blown off, like Dan Shaw and Darren Swift are clearly ex-military and it is poignant to hear them talk of how they were injured and how their lives have been affected. The irrepressible Shaw in particular demonstrates a painful gallows humour which adds to the real-life feel. But some of the cast are actors, including Tom Colley and Miriam Cooper. This choice diminishes the effect of having the soldiers tell their stories. It is impossible to tell what comes from the personal experience of the man or woman speaking and what is an amalgam of other people’s stories.
Not all the injuries on display occurred on the front line, and not all are physical. Not all the stories have the bad endings that might be imagined. The soldiers demonstrate humanity’s resilience and show the way that ambitions can be reset and energies redeployed. Cast member Stewart Hill has brain damage and since leaving the army has turned to painting. Maurilla Simpson was injured in Germany whilst cycling to work and is now in the British Paralympic sitting volleyball team. But for every positive there are soldiers who have descended into drink and drugs, unable to sleep for fear of their dreams, unable to reconnect with their families.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is theatre as documentary and shows a part of warfare that is often airbrushed and kept unseen. It developed out of therapy sessions designed to help soldiers overcome the horrific experiences they had gone through. It does not glamorise war but also does not condemn it. It is a unique experience of soldiering that concentrates on the relatively good rehabilitation given to British soldiers. If life after war is hard for Brits we are left wondering what it is like for the Afghan farmers and their families who – having been paid $10 to fire pot shots at our boys – are on the the receiving end of $60,000 missiles.
At the end the soldiers were applauded as much for their backstories and experiences as for their performances on stage, as though to applaud somehow salved the consciences of those of us that – however remotely – sent them to be maimed. As George Orwell wrote ‘Those who abjure violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf,’ and if as a nation we believe that there are times when war is necessary we cannot hide from the results.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is not a tightly plotted drama, and jumps from scene to scene with little dramatic impetus. It is though important as part of the ongoing dialogue regarding war and Britain’s part in policing the world. If we want to continue to play a role that we have taken for centuries then we have to be aware of the human cost and decide whether the price is still worth paying.