Owen Sheers' Two Worlds of Charlie F: war stories on stage

Owen Sheers is a writer immersed in the culture of his native Wales. From the Port Talbot Passion starring Michael Sheen and the film of his novel Resistance to being Welsh rugby's official poet, he returns to a theatre in Cardiff with a group of injured soldiers sharing their harrowing stories.

Known as Bravo 22 Company, the wounded veterans took London's West End by storm in January with the hit play The Two Worlds of Charlie F, following them from the theatre of war through morphine-fuelled recuperation to the impact of their return home to their families.

Sheers says creative producer Alice Driver of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust invited him to adapt a series of war stories for the stage after hearing of his work on The Passion.

Despite that previous experience of working with non-professional actors in The Passion, Sheers said his first encounter with injured soldiers at Headley Court rehabilitation centre in Wiltshire was out of the ordinary.

"I was walking into a rehearsal room where the cast had killed probably in double figures, maybe even in three figures - that was pretty surprising and that makes you wake up," he says.

Sheers said he and the recuperating veterans quickly had to understand each other's world but the project funded and facilitated by the Royal British Legion fired his imagination.

"I saw it as a very rare opportunity of marrying that documentary element of having the real people who have had these experiences on stage with all of the tricks and all of the magic you can bring with theatre.

'Lowest ebb'

"We weren't going to treat this as a charity project," he adds.

"They had to be willing to make fools of themselves - they were quite good at that.

"As you can imagine it got pretty emotional at times - we had to tread carefully but they took to it incredibly well.

Image caption Physiotherapy provides the inspiration for one of the scenes in the play

"Some of the people I met were at the lowest ebb of their lives ever, severely depressed, literally in a room on their own for two years, and here was a project which was giving them a chance to tell their story and the stories of others."

Sheers added that military training proved useful for the novice actors.

"As soldiers they recognised a situation where there's this huge challenge and the only way you're going to get over it is by pulling together and being responsible for each other."

Bombardier Gareth Crabbe, 34, who served with the Royal Artillery in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, said taking part in the play had been a therapeutic experience.

Crabbe, whose family come from Swansea, is recovering from spinal damage suffered during a training accident on Salisbury Plain.

Standing ovation

"It's helping a lot - it's great to be with other people who are equally or even more messed up than you are," he said.

"It's a really positive distraction."

Image caption Shoulder to shoulder: Bombardier Gareth Crabbe (left) with Owen Sheers

The play is destined for the Edinburgh Fringe, but Sheers insisted it be brought to Cardiff, in tribute to the Welsh soldiers in the cast, and reflecting its national resonance.

"Wales punches above her weight in terms of the armed forces," he says.

"We know we've suffered very heavily in terms of fatalities and woundings.

"This is a message that we need to get out into the regions because this is where we recruit our army from.

"I feel very proud to have brought it back to Cardiff and I was thrilled with the response from the audience with an immediate standing ovation - I was very, very grateful."

Sheers was also struck by the shared territory between the soldiers and the sportsmen he has worked with.

"You can be a 21-year-old rugby player - rugby's your life and suddenly you have a traumatic injury.

"You wake up and think rugby's all you know. It's kind of what these guys are dealing with, and that regimented lifestyle, that hierarchy.

"It's about how we make sure the transition from these somewhat isolated parts of society into the mainstream of society is made as smooth and as positive as possible."

The Two Worlds of Charlie F is at the Sherman Cymru, Cardiff, until Saturday, 28 July, then the Pleasance Grand, Edinburgh from 7 to 11 August, and the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London on 9 September.

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