A TERRIBLE BEAUTY: INSPIRING, INTIMIDATING, INVALUABLE
The lad in the Army Recruiting Office listens enthusiastically to the Para behind the desk speaking of comradeship and adventure. But as he shifts his chair the startled recruit blurts “You’ve got no legs!”. “At least” says the soldier “you passed your observation test” . God help us: in this searingly memorable evocation of military attrition it isn’t the wrecked young bodies or the drugged night-terrors which bring on tears; not even the anxious lovers and mothers. It’s the military deadpan, the ancient dry courage which will quip in the face of disaster and only then turn inward to contemplate the future in bleak and lonely privacy.
The play brilliantly captures both that deadpan black humour and the soft desperate inward reality of the seriously injured. It had to, because most of its cast are real veterans telling real stories: they were recruited at the Headley Court rehabilitation centre by the producer Alice Driver as a therapeutic recovery project . Still struggling with pain and powerful medication, they began by telling their stories to writer Owen Sheers and director Stephen Rayne. A BBC documentary followed the process towards last year’s gala performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with a thirty-strong cast – soldiers male and female, plus a few professional performers and dancers. So overwhelming was the impact that the Royal British Legion is supporting a nationwide tour with a trimmed-down cast of fifteen.
Quite apart from its documentary and personal reality it has become a striking and effective piece of theatre. Simple but shattering use of shadow-play, chorus, soliloquy and movement meld scraps of memory and progress into a powerful whole. In one sequence a balletic rehab-gym sequence explodes and collapses into a remembered image of civilian carnage, then as the broken bodies move they become night-victims, suffering “high-def hallucinations” and afraid to sleep. Shafts of rough soldierly humour cut through sentimentality: one beautiful song sequence as the soldiers read loving, hopeful “blueys” ends with one getting a “Dear John” letter and the others – for the safety of the platoon – mocking and sending him up, forcing it not to matter.
Nothing is overstated or milked, Jason Carr’s songs are low-key and beautiful in their truthfulness: a chanted list of medications, from oromorph to antidepressants, chills the blood, and Sheers’ skill picks up and makes poetry of documentary reminiscence. We believe in the heat and sand, the unseen Taleban “like fighting ghosts”, the frightened villagers, the misery of trying not to shoot back at children. A straightforward military lecture illustrates how IED injuries happen, eyelets from your very boots ripping through your groin: within modern military kit still lies the same soft human flesh which wars have always shredded.
To speak of stars feels crass but “Charlie F” (also military slang for a complex disaster or “clusterf–k”) is the nickname of the protagonist, played by Royal Marine Cassidy Little: a natural star who lost half a leg to an IED in Helmand and woke in Selly Oak hospital convinced he was a captive being tortured. Maurillia Simpson from Trinidad sings with a lovely gospel voice and remembers how as a child she saw the Queen’s visit and vowed to be one of her soldiers. Stewart Hill terrifyingly, flatly, relates the brain damage which torpedoed his career as an officer. A wife remembers at the hospital seeing women in burqas, and hating them but then hearing them praying for her husband by name.
But they all shine, in wheelchairs and on crutches, criticizing one another’s stumps or confessing with raw sad courage the emotional and sexual chaos of recovery. For it is about recovery: in the final speech Charlie F salutes the oldest regiment in the world, the regiment of the injured. Their daily victories of body and mind are being fought all around us, if we would just look.
box office 0844 871 7651 to 22 March TOURING to 7 June http://www.charlie-f.com/