The Argument: Mirvish’s whimsical new war drama stars real-life combat veterans, stumps and all
In the past few years, a handful of films have revitalized the war-story genre by fusing hard documentary with fanciful fiction. The one that kick-started it all was probably 2008’s Waltz With Bashir, which transforms the plight of traumatized Israeli soldiers into a luminous, hand-drawn animated fable. More recently, The Act of Killing, a 2014 Oscar contender, has Indonesian mercenaries acting out their atrocities in the style of campy Hollywood genres—musicals, spaghetti westerns and gangster capers. These movies combine documentary precision with whimsical flourishes, exposing the artificial narratives people create about war and simultaneously making those stories feel fresh again.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F., the latest offering from Mirvish’s alternative theatre series, transplants that technique to the Princess of Wales stage, with a troupe of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who re-enact their real-life experiences of training, combat and trauma. It’s a documentary with cabaret overtones—or perhaps a cabaret with documentary overtones. Either way, it mixes first-person monologues with sketch-comedy routines, musical interludes and dance numbers that convey the perils, pleasures and absurdities of a life in service.
Alice Driver was a producer at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, England, in 2011, when she conceived the show and its cast of vets as a combination therapeutic intervention and charity drive. The initial rehearsals were plagued with complications: one performer went AWOL; others were on cocktails of opioids and antidepressants, and had trouble memorizing lines. Yet another actor eventually left because he wasn’t able to handle the pressures of production. And somehow, after months of workshopping, a play was born. Charlie F. was originally meant to run for just two nights at the Haymarket, but audiences demanded more. It toured to packed houses across the U.K. and morphed into a runaway hit.
At the centre of Charlie F. is actor Cassidy Little, who moved from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to London in 2004 with the hope of making it in show business. Following a failed tour of the London stand-up comedy circuit, he enlisted in the British Royal Marine Commandos in 2008. Three years later, while on patrol in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province, Little was injured in an IED blast that killed two people in his company. He suffered shrapnel wounds, a detached retina and a shattered pelvis—and lost his right leg from the knee down. “I have no idea who planted that bomb,” he says. “All I can tell you is that I was wearing a really nice boot. Some guy in Afghanistan has a fantastic umbrella stand.”
When Little joined the cast of Charlie F., he was such a natural onstage that playwright Owen Sheers centred the action on his character, Corporal Charlie Fowler, a foul-mouthed, shell-shocked amputee struggling to save his failing relationship. Also among the principal cast: rifleman Daniel Shaw, a double amputee who also survived an IED blast; Major Stewart Hill, who suffered brain damage after shrapnel from an explosion ruptured his skull; and Lance Corporal Maurillia Simpson, a three-time Iraq veteran and Paralympic volleyball player who lost the use of her right leg in a traffic accident.
Near the beginning of the play, Little turns to the audience and addresses them directly. “We’re all in this Afghan shit together, all us citizens of the Commonwealth. And now, for the brief time we have together, so are you,” he teases, grinning maniacally, like a birthday party clown.
“So shall we get started? Let’s go on a tour.” Bear with me, he’s saying. This might hurt a bit, but it’ll be worth your while.
Because the performers are actual army vets, Charlie F. offers a level of verisimilitude that other combat plays can’t possibly deliver. The soldiers open up about the thrill of battle, the gruelling boot camp experience, the shaky re-entry into domestic life and the challenges of living in a damaged body. One basic training scene features a drill instructor berating audience members: “You! Get a haircut. You! Sit up straight.” (The effect is more frightening than funny.) In another vignette, Shaw re-enacts the instant when, after surviving an IED blast, he realizes his legs are missing.
The variety-show format cuts through the grim realism with buoyant, playful vitality—a lance corporal phoning the local bars in search of his prosthetic leg after an epic bender, or a jangly music hall number where the characters dance like tweaked-out robots and rattle off a list of the prescription drugs they’re taking: “codeine, tramadol, fentanyl, Oramorph, paracetamol, MST, amitriptyline, diazepam.” A wheelchair dance pairs off three amputees with their able-bodied girlfriends in a surprisingly nimble silent drama about strained relationships and the arduous duties of caring for an injured partner. And then there’s the showstopper, where Maurillia Simpson—one of two female soldiers in the principal cast—sings the gospel standard “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” with the soulful confidence of a military Ethel Waters.
The seemingly incongruous genres work in symbiosis: the comedy routines send up the indignities of post-combat life, and the musical numbers give voice to chronic pain, lingering fears and medication-induced malaise. The play’s shifting tone mimics the characters’ emotions, which lurch from shame to pride to drunken bluster to bewilderment.
Cassidy Little’s favourite scene comes at the end of the show, when he enters in a pair of shorts and dares audience members to gape at his prosthetic. “We’re leaving the services, but we’re also joining one of the oldest regiments there is: the regiment of the wounded,” he says, looking out at the crowd. At this moment, he’s at his provocative best. War has made a tangible, physical imprint on his body—and the play will leave its mark on you, too.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F.
Princess of Wales Theatre
Feb. 25 to March 9