UK

Injured veterans star in play about war's lingering effects

Marine Cassidy Little and Rifleman Daniel Shaw
Image caption The show's actors have all been injured themselves

On a brightly-lit stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, two young men are comparing their injuries, and trading good-natured jibes. One has lost two legs, the other 'only' one.

The men are not actors, but still serving in the armed forces, and their wounds are all too real.

Marine Cassidy Little and Rifleman Daniel Shaw, an infanteer from 4 Rifles, are just two of the 30 injured or wounded servicemen and women who have joined the Bravo 22 Company project - the brainchild of theatre producer Alice Driver - to bring their experiences to the stage on Sunday.

The Two Worlds of Charlie F is probably the closest most West End audiences will get to the front-lines in Afghanistan, and the slow and painful process of recovery endured by the injured.

The characters are based on the men and women's own stories, written and produced by professionals at the theatre's Masterclass Trust.

'Amazing experience'

The language of the play is wholly authentic, with the drama of the fictional Charlie F and his comrades moving seamlessly between black humour and pathos, though rarely self-pity.

During rehearsals, the forthright orders from director Stephen Rayne are reminiscent of a sergeant major.

Rifleman Shaw, 20, volunteered to take part in the project while at Tedworth House Recovery Centre, after losing both legs to a roadside bomb in Helmand in 2009.

"The play has been an amazing experience, and I feel good doing it, but there are a few emotions that do come back on stage, and it's the same for everyone," he says.

"But it's in the past and you have to get over it. Regardless of your injuries, there's no point crying about it."

He hopes the play will help the audience understand the physical and mental impact of the soldiers' injuries, and what their families have to face.

"My mum and dad and my ex-girlfriend are coming to see it. I've explained to them what happens in the play - especially when it gets quite emotional - and I've warned them not to fret."

Captain Anna Poole, who plays a captain, says the last time she was on stage was tap-dancing at school, 23 years ago.

She, too, is matter-of-fact about her injury, after losing a leg as the result of an accident while competing for Great Britain in a luge contest in 2005.

"It is incredibly nerve-racking to go up on stage," the 34-year-old admits.

"A lot of the guys say they would rather be storming compounds back out in Afghanistan than going on stage. It's a different type of fear, but it's also great fun."

The Bravo 22 Company project does not shy away from showing the hurt and pain suffered by the injured and their families, and also deals with tough subjects such as sex post-injury or emotional estrangement when partners or relatives find it hard to cope.

Image caption Some 30 veterans are taking part in the production

"It's a very personal play, with quite raw emotions," says Capt Poole.

"It's been quite difficult to watch some of it, because you know whose girlfriend had those experiences, or which guys you've seen go through a lot of grief, when they come out of their operation and can't put on their prosthetic limbs.

"It's been a cathartic process for many of us, and the audience will struggle not to get their hankies out. "

Those taking part say they are grateful for support from the Royal British Legion, Masterclass and the MoD in letting them tell the "grittier" side of the recovery process.

"A lot of documentaries focus on the point of being injured, but what they don't show is this incredible patch in the middle when your ups and downs are astronomical," Cpt Poole says.

"I hope the play will give people a better understanding, and the knowledge that when they contribute to military charities, they are helping people like us rehabilitate - no matter where or how those injuries were sustained."

Capt Poole is due to leave the Army soon, and is studying glass-blowing - a rather different future to the one she had imagined - but one she is looking forward to with enthusiasm.

Rifleman Shaw is also looking to the future with hope, despite his life-changing injuries.

"It's just time. Everyone needs time. For myself, I woke up one morning and said - right, got no legs. What else can I do? OK, I'll do everything I can do, rather than crying about what I can't do."

'Two worlds at once'

The play is one of the first to deal with the personal consequences of the UK's two most recent wars; its title an allusion to the different worlds inhabited by the wounded, pre- and post-injury.

The Welsh playwright, Owen Sheers, began by talking to the wounded, first alone and then in groups, gathering their stories.

"It wasn't always easy for them to talk about it," said Sheers, who is also a novelist and poet, and last month became the Welsh Rugby Union's first artist-in-residence.

"Quite often I was the first person they'd told stuff to, and that was an indication of what this project meant for them, being willing to go back to some quite painful places," he said.

Image caption Playwright Owen Sheers says many of the soldiers had not spoken of their experiences before

"What a lot of wounded servicepeople struggle with is inhabiting a series of two worlds at once.

"They will lay their heads down to sleep and in an instant they will be back on the frontline, but then they'll wake up next to their wife.

"I hope the audience will get a soldier's eye-view of what it means to be injured or wounded and go through this recovery period, and be reminded of what those three letters 'war' actually mean, and how far the consequence of one person's war and wounding stretches.

"We've been involved in conflict for 10 years, yet it's very easy to live in Britain and not be aware that we are a country at war.

"I think that is irresponsible - and I think we need to be aware for all our sakes about the absolute realities of what war means."