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Cylla von Tiedemann
The Two Worlds of Charlie F
The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a powerful play based on the recollections of today's servicemen and women injured on operational duty comes to Guildford this May
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The Two Worlds of Charlie F review, the Richmond theatre
Every year sick and wounded soldiers return to civvy street, aided in their recovery by Headley Court rehabilitation centre. Lucy Johnston meets the creator of an extraordinary play that gives voice to their struggles
Alice Driver is sheltering from the rain in a doorway of Wellington Barracks in London. The executive producer is there for rehearsals of The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a theatre project she conceived back in 2010. Charlie, she informs me, is a ‘whizz’.
Or, rather – as she clarifies for the benefit of puzzled interviewer – a ‘WIS’: wounded, injured, sick.
“Oh dear, sorry,” she says patiently, pausing mid-flow. “I’ve got pretty good at my military acronyms over the past couple of years, I forget that it’s not everyday language.”
Subject of a highly unusual play, Charlie F is a single fictional character representing the large number of injured military veterans being rehabilitated into civilian life across the UK today.
Many of these find themselves at the military’s specialist centre at Headley Court, near Leatherhead, where they receive treatment and much needed support during their recovery.
The narrative – sad, funny, even rude at times, and all skilfully told through words and music – was developed from first-hand working sessions with ex-Service personnel at Headley Court, many of whom were encouraged to talk about their experiences for the first time.
“The struggle for these veterans is that they can’t just go back to being civilians. But they are no longer military either. They are caught somewhere in between,” explains Alice, whose inspiration for the play derived from a visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where many military wounded are treated.
“One injured soldier there really summed up what it’s like to be a WIS when he described how incredibly vulnerable it makes them. They lose their sense of identity and purpose. But more than that, they feel that they lose their voice. It was that thought that made me want to see if we could bring those voices back in a new way.”
As Alice discovered, army rehabilitation programmes do not generally include theatre as an outlet, focusing instead on sports therapy and physical adventure.
Gradually, however, she built up support for her idea: the creation of a piece of theatre that presents audiences with an honest, eye-opening account of injured soldiers’ real experiences of returning to the civilian world, performed by ex-Service personnel themselves – 30 WIS selected from across the army.
Among them is current Headley Court resident Marine Cassidy Little, who lost his right leg, shattered the left, detached one of his retinas and fractured his pelvis in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast in Afghanistan, back in 2011.
Not surprisingly, his road to recovery has been long, but key to his therapy has been the experience of playing the lead, Charlie.
“If I’m honest, I needed something,” he says, reflecting on why he got involved.
What began with the expectation of doing a couple of performances, as part of a charitable initiative at the Haymarket Theatre, London, soon took on a bigger life. Trevor Nunn came on board as Artistic Director for that first staging – which saw repeated standing ovations – and the play went on to do a small UK tour in 2012, winning an Amnesty Award for freedom of expression.
Now this remarkable, moving show is on its way around the UK again – with the full support of the Royal British Legion, MOD, Defence Recovery Capability, Chief of the Defence Staff and – most critically – the soldiers themselves.
“If those we asked to take part had felt it was going to be contrived, they’d have walked. We would not have the play we have now. Simple as that,” explains Alice.
“And the fact that we had no agenda; that we just wanted to help ex-Service personnel to tell their stories, build up their confidence and be part of a team again, and to let audiences make up their own minds...that has counted for a lot.”
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is at G-Live, Guildford, May 22-24 (£10 tickets are available for military personnel, quote ‘service’); charlie-f.com