The Two Worlds of Charlie F is a soldier’s view of service – and survival.
From the bullets of the battlefield to the morphine nightmares of the hospital bed, it’s an unflinching portrayal of life as a wounded serviceman.
It is a pioneering project brought to life by Alice Driver, whose theatre company was given unprecedented access by the MoD to work with the wounded, injured and sick military personnel at Headley Court rehabilitation base.
Together – along with The Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust, Royal British Legion, Defence Recovery Capability and playwright Owen Sheers – they have created a play that moves from the war in Afghanistan to the physio rooms of Headley.
Personal, moving, funny; the production explores the effects of injury and how soldiers fight to win a new battle for survival at home.
Here, four cast members share their incredible stories, as told to Elizabeth Joyce.
Aged 42 from Nottingham, Royal Regiment of Wales.
Was injured when shrapnel from an IED tore into his brain in Afghanistan in July 2009 in some of the fiercest fighting UK forces experienced against the Taliban. Destined for high-level promotion but medically discharged in March 2012, Stewart is now a keen artist who plays Major Daniel Thomas in the play.
“After I was injured, I spent the next year and a half in rehab across the country, including Leeds, Nottingham and Headley Court.
There was not much going on in my life. I was just trying to figure out how to get my brain working again. I was in the Personnel Recovery Unit and I got an email asking if I was interested in this theatre project. I’d done some am-dram in my teens and panto in the Army so I thought I would go for this. I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren I’d performed on the West End stage.
It has helped hugely. At the time of the rehearsals, at the end of 2011, I was at the height of my depression. I felt worthless. My wife Melissa gets a bit miffed when I say how much this has helped me, she’s like ‘What about us?’ but these were people who weren’t my family or friends, they weren’t people I had served with in the military, they weren’t psychologists or physiotherapists and that was refreshing to me. They really cheered me up – gave me a new context, a fresh perspective. Depression is horrendous, it’s so much emotion to carry around – this project was such a release of all that. I felt like so much pressure had been lifted from my shoulders. It reminded me that there can be pleasure in life.
I’m now really enjoying this play and my painting, which I’ve got back into now. It’s wonderful therapy for me because I really have to focus on what I’m doing. I tried to work again after my injury but I had to resign. I remember sitting down with my wife with tears in my eyes saying ‘I can’t do anything. I’ll never be able to do anything’. She just looked at me and said ‘What do you enjoy doing?’. I said painting and that was that, we decided that’s what I would do. It’s therapeutic. It’s my heart.
The reaction from the audiences of the play has been amazing. Obviously it’s a raw play, it pulls on people’s emotions and it does cover dark events but the reaction from people who have been through trauma, whether military or a car crash or something, has been phenomenal, there’s been a lot of hugs and cuddles and tears of relief that they are not alone. There is no shame in trauma and you do not have to suffer alone with your thoughts. There is light in life but it’s up to the individual to find it. Family, friends and doctors can only get you so far, you have discover things on your own – this play has helped me and others realise that.”
From Trinidad and Tobago, Royal Logistic Corps.
After serving in Iraq three times, Simi had to be medically discharged after being knocked down by a car while stationed in Germany. Plays Lance Corporal Simi Yates.
Aside from acting, she has also been selected for Great Britain’s sitting volleyball team for Rio 2016.
“I have wanted to be in the Army since I was seven years old. The Queen came on a royal visit to Trinidad and I remember thinking ‘I’m going to live where you live, I am going to serve the Queen’. So when I achieved my lifelong dream of being in the Army, it was a privilege and an honour. I signed up for 22 years – it was the only way for me. I felt honoured to be in the Army, to still be alive and serve when others had not been as lucky.
I went to Germany in 2010 after a nine-month tour in Iraq. I got a promotion to Corporal in the Second Engineer Regiment and I felt that things were just as they should be. One morning I was cycling back to base when, out of the blue, a car came from no where and knocked me down. It ruptured my left leg and that was that, my career was over.
I felt like a failure. I had survived Iraq, I had survived being blown up, I had survived having a glass wall fall on me – I can still remember the shouts of ‘We’re not leaving you! You will survive!’ from the lads when that happened – and now this was how my career had ended. It didn’t make sense. I had just been promoted. Everything was going according to plan and this changed everything. I questioned everything: ‘If only I had been a few seconds earlier. If only I had gone another way. . .’.
I still ask myself why every day but I am grateful to be alive, to be able to continue my journey instead of being a dead person. This play has given me focus, so has my volleyball and I’m now in Team GB and will be going to Rio in 2016.
Rehab is a journey. Sometimes you have to re-live what’s happened to you but that’s not always bad thing. Sometimes you have to go back to move forward.
These lads have helped me more than they will ever know. They have helped me move on from losing my dream to getting new ones. They are my family now and I know no matter what, they are there looking out for me. And I am there with them.”
23 from Milton Keynes, The Rifles.
Lost both of his legs aged 18 in an IED explosion as he went to the aid of a colleague in his platoon. Plays Rifleman Leroy Jenkins.
As well as acting, Dan is also designing and writing his own animé about a double amputee with special powers.
“I’ve been in Charlie F from the very beginning but my initial reaction was ‘no way’. At the time, I was focused on my recovery and I didn’t want any distractions. I think it was about protecting myself in a way too – I didn’t want to re-live things, I didn’t want to go through it all again mentally. Eventually though, I was somehow convinced.
At first, it was very, very difficult and I would be tearing up when I performed. I was re-enacting what had happened. Even now, it still brings back emotions that get the better of me. But actually, coming to terms with the experience, talking about it and talking to others who have been through the same thing has helped. It’s made things better. Things were terrifying at first but it’s second nature now. Obviously acting is very different than being in the Army but I still spot similarities – the director’s our Sergeant for example!
All my family and friends have seen the show. It was really difficult when my mum first watched it. I was 18 when I was injured and there’s her little boy up on stage talking about this terrible thing but she’s seen how much it’s helped me. She knows this is nothing but positive.”
32 from Canada, serving with 42 Commando, RM, Bickleigh Barracks, Plymouth.
Lost a leg and suffered injuries to his pelvis and left eye from an IED in Afghanistan in 2011, plays Corporal Charlie Fowler
“This project has totally helped me. The path of recovery is long but it sure does help if you have good scenery. This has given me really, really good scenery. It’s help mend our fractured egos – and I mean that in the true Freudian sense of the word, our sense of Self.
I got blew up in May 2011 and spent three months after that in Headley Court, taking up physio to get back to myself.
While I was there, someone asked me if I would talk to this director and share my story and I did. A month after that I was in the company, a month after that I was the lead and two months after that I was rehearsing and then we were on the stage. It all moved so quickly. Owen Sheers was the only director in the world who could have done this – he has really processed what we are saying and what we have gone through.
Talking about it and re-living it has helped. There is no lack of communication here, we always have and will continue to talk about what we have gone through.
The reaction from audiences around the world has been great, but you have to remember that no one started out with hopes of this sort of reaction – it just started out in a room in Headley Court with me in a wheelchair. My God, I needed
something back then, I needed ‘something else’ because all I was doing was watching re-runs of Game of Thrones and taking the p*** out the guy with the spinal injury next door.
Do I get nervous? The show is always intense by its nature because you’re re-living stuff, whether it’s funny stuff or petrifying stuff, you’re living it all over again, but I’ve definitely calmed down now – I can sleep and I’m not being sick at least!
I had a little acting and stand-up experience beforehand but the other service personnel who’ve had little to no stage experience are just awesome. These are guys who’ve had to change the entire direction of their life because they’ve been blown up or whatever and they’re doing an amazing job. They’ve gone from strangers, to friends, to family.
I love the UK and I can’t believe I get to tour it now as an actor. I live in a little village with my beautiful wife Laura and it’s perfect – there’s eight pubs within minutes of each other. What more do I need?
But I’ve lived in the UK, I’ve lived in America and I’ve lived in Canada and home is only wherever Laura is. I don’t care if I’m in Tasmania, if she’s there too, it’s home.”
The Two Worlds of Charlie F runs at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Wednesday to Saturday. Call 01902 429212Subscribe to our Newsletter