Will Gore meets the team behind The Two Worlds of Charlie F – a remarkable new production telling the stories of ex-servicemen and women that opens in Richmond this month
The Two Worlds of Charlie F is a play about war that’s unlike any other you are likely to have seen before. Depictions of warfare on stage have been common ever since the ancient Greeks started treading the boards but this new show ups the ante considerably as it is performed by a group of recently wounded servicemen and women.
With the war in Afghanistan as its backdrop, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, which comes to Richmond Theatre in March, gives the soldiers an opportunity to tell their story, from experiences on the battlefield to tales of recovery post-injury. A number of the company lost limbs in service and the production doesn’t shy away from explaining how these violent incidents occurred or in exhibiting the injuries suffered.
When the play, which has the full support of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Royal British Legion, was first performed over two nights at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End in 2012 audiences and critics responded ecstatically to its mixture of barrack room humour and brutal honesty. It met with further adulation at the Edinburgh Festival and during a short UK tour, and was also given an award by Amnesty International.
The show’s producer Alice Driver, who came up with the idea after visiting the MoD’s rehabilitation centre in Birmingham, says that while her original focus was on “giving the soldiers a voice”, she is delighted with the impact it has had on those who have seen it.
“What has happened is that we’ve received no negative reaction at all, and it’s been wonderful,” she tells me. “When we took the production to Birmingham the first time around a woman who was given an MBE for making cakes for injured servicemen and women brought some cakes to the theatre. A tea party was organised after one of the matinees where the audience and the actors were able to meet. After watching the play people just seem to need to stay to talk about it and tell their own stories.”
Alice was working for Masterclass, the educational wing of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, when The Two Worlds of Charlie F project began in 2011. Although initially sceptical, the MoD allowed her, along with director Stephen Rayne and playwright Owen Sheers, access to a group of wounded soldiers who were keen to be involved in a theatre production. After weeks of workshops Sheers created a script and much of what is spoken on stage is directly taken from the soldiers’ recollections.
One of the recruits, Marine Cassidy Little, who plays Charlie F, is returning to a personal passion by appearing in the show. Cassidy, who lost a leg after being caught up in an explosion in Afghanistan in May 2011, was an actor before joining the Royal Marines. He moved from his native Canada to Britain to give stand-up comedy a go, before, amazingly, he joined the armed forces after making a series of bets with his friends.
“One bet was about whether I could get in shape and so I thought I’d join the army,” he explains. “I signed up to the Royal Marines expecting not to get through but I enjoyed the challenge. I wanted to prove that I could go from being a guy working in a warehouse and doing stand-up comedy in the evenings to a guy with a rifle in his hand in a war zone.”
He says that being involved in the production has been a “healthy distraction” for himself and his fellow performers and he now wants to pursue a career in acting. He is also remarkably good-humoured about his injuries, joking that he used to have bad athlete’s foot and so losing a leg has helped alleviate the itching. Yet for all the wisecracks, he is serious when he insists that while The Two Worlds of Charlie F puts the brutality of war in stark relief, he hopes it won’t put off those keen to join the armed forces.
“I would always encourage people to join the military if they feel they are strong enough for it,” he says. “I’d never tell them not to because I lost a leg in Afghanistan. There many different jobs people can do in the armed forces and if in the future I have children that want to join the army then I’d encourage them to.”
Richmond is an appropriate place for The Two Worlds of Charlie F to be performed with the town’s close links to the Royal British Legion and its Poppy Factory. The fact that this year sees the centenary of the start of the First World War also means the timing of the tour is pertinent. With all of the centenary events it will be a case of looking back on the sacrifice of soldiers past, but this production provides a powerful reminder of the huge challenges being faced by servicemen and women today.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F runs at Richmond Theatre from March 17-22. For more information and to book tickets; atgtickets.com