The cast biographies in the programme for The Two Worlds of Charlie F are not your average trawl through rep theatre, Casualty appearances and RSC roles. Rather they list the actors’ rank, their tours of duty and, harrowingly, the injuries they have sustained during them – from Bombardier Gareth Crabbe, who needed a spinal disc replacement after a tour in Iraq, to Rifleman Daniel Shaw, who lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan.
They are just two of Bravo 22, a new company made up of wounded soldiers who have come together for a new West End play. There have been plenty of plays about war, plenty of verbatim works, too, inspired by the conflicts of the past two decades. Charlie F is the first time that real-life service personnel have appeared on stage to tell their own stories. It makes for an evening of rare, raw power.
Owen Sheers, writer of the wartime film Resistance, has woven the company’s tales into an impressionistic, yet compellingly informative play about life as a 21st-century soldier. We hear why they enlisted, about their injuries, the pain of rehab and the “tour they don’t tell you about”, the challenges of reassimilating into life back home.
It doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities, “the shit, skinflakes and sand”, of serving in Afghanistan, but there are moments, too, of real humour, even poetry. Odd phrases stick in the mind, like the soldier who becomes “pink mist” after an attack, or the elegiac postscript to a blackly comic scene where new recruits are taught which bits of the anatomy are affected by stepping on a bomb (answer: all of them): “This is where war happens. On the bodies of men.”
This, of course, is plain to see. Many of the cast perform in wheelchairs, with prosthetic limbs or on crutches. Any reservations about the voyeurism of watching such an unusual set of non-actors evaporates in the face of the powerful, often unbearably moving moments of drama they produce. Director Stephen Rayne has drilled his troops well and what they achieve is quite remarkable – songs, physical theatre, even a physiotherapy-based dance routine. They are ably assisted by five professionals, but it is Marine Cassidy Little, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, who heroically guides proceedings as Charlie F, with an affable, utterly relaxed air.
The making of the show has been filmed by the BBC and there is now talk of a tour, perhaps to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. Certainly, it deserves a wider audience.