Marine Cassidy ‘Cass’ Little was blown up by the Taliban in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in May 2011, losing a leg. In May 1991, Darren ‘Swifty’ Swift, of the Royal Green Jackets, lost both legs to an IRA bomb in Northern Ireland.
Yesterday the cruel symmetry of their brushes with death, 20 years apart, dawned on the pair for the first time. Each expressed astonishment but it was just one more link among many for two ex-servicemen who have found a new kind of camaraderie in the theatre.
Both were in Newcastle to talk about The Two Worlds of Charlie F. which is soon to embark on a new national tour bringing it to the Theatre Royal.
The play, billed as “a soldier’s view of service, injury and recovery”, is by Owen Sheers but it is based on the testimonies of real servicemen and women, their families and the professionals tasked with mending, as far as possible, broken bodies and minds.
It is performed by people like Cass and Swifty, now medically discharged from the armed forces, along with still serving personnel and some professional actors.
At the theatre yesterday it became clear that anything less than standing ovations in Newcastle will be a surprise. This has been the response at every previous performance of what is, by all accounts, an extraordinarily moving piece of work.
Executive producer Alice Driver explained the background, recalling how in 2010 she met a surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, where the wounded from our overseas conflicts are taken for treatment. She met some of the patients.
“What struck me was how incredibly vulnerable you become when you are injured,” she said. “You lose your sense of self, your purpose, your identity and fundamentally your voice.”
With experience of using theatrical skills to boost self-esteem in the business world, she thought a similar project might help casualties of war. A play based on the experiences of wounded personnel started to take shape.
Support came quickly from the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in London’s West End, and its artistic director Sir Trevor Nunn. The Royal British Legion backed the idea and so, after initial concerns about “airy fairy therapy”, did the Ministry of Defence. General Sir David Richards, then Chief of the Defence Staff, offered his personal support.
All Alice needed then was a cast. Realising she might not be “cool enough” to win soldiers to her cause, she recruited tough guy actor Ray Winstone to ‘sell’ it for her. Amputees and others with neck and back injuries and suffering from post-traumatic stress duly stepped forward.
Cass Little, who didn’t actually meet Ray Winstone, remembered being told, in no-nonsense military fashion: “You used to do that stand-up comedy c***. There are some people doing some sort of theatre c***. Sounds like it’s up your alley.”
Dutifully he took himself along and landed the leading part of Corporal Charlie Fowler.
Perched against a table at the Theatre Royal, prosthesis where his lower right leg used to be, Cass said yesterday: “I’m a soldier, through and through.”
But there can’t be many ex-Royal Marines with his life story. The brigadier general’s son was born on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, became a ballet dancer, got injured, moved to England to chance his arm at stand-up comedy and then joined 42 Commando, Royal Marines as the result of a bet, the details of which he was reluctant to go into because it was “a bit blue” and best explained after a drink or two.
At the age of 33, Cass is funny, eloquent, seemingly in love with life. But the past few years can’t have been easy. Deadpan, he told us: “The problem with being blown up, other than you lose body parts, is that your life undergoes a huge change. They call it a singularity, in that it affects everything before and after.
“Your confidence has gone, you’re sitting in a wheelchair, you feel disabled. I had a brain injury, a double fracture of the pelvis... all kinds of things weren’t working in the proper way.
“Soldiers are simple creatures. You give them a job and then you give them beer whan they achieve it. I really had no goal but you can’t sit there all day playing Call of Duty or watching re-runs of Game of Thrones.”
Through The Two Worlds of Charlie F. he found a new goal, a new “band of brothers” (and a few sisters) and a sense of camaraderie similar to what had motivated him in the military.
“When you walk into the rehearsal room, it’s as if you exchange a glance with the others. It’s like, holy c***, we’re all here for the same reason. You suddenly realise this is your new military, your new troop. You memorise your lines because you have to support your ‘brothers’, the guys standing next to you.
“Now, physically, I’m maybe three-quarters of the man I was. But mentally I’m every bit the guy I was before I got blown up.”
Swifty, a Londoner who now lives with his wife and daughter at Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria, joined the Army at 16 and stayed until his career was cut short at 26. He was working with a colleague, a Geordie, when both were hit by the blast. “We were dog handlers. He looked for the bombs, I looked for the people who put them there.” His friend was killed, Swifty lost both legs from the knees down.
Since then he has “mucked about with TV”, often playing casualties of war. “If you watch a British-made film and see a guy being blown up, it’s probably me. My lines usually consists of ‘Aargh’ or ‘Errrh’. I’m really good at dying. I’ve done it for real.”
Now 49, Swifty “fell into” theatre, catching the eye of National Theatre boss Sir Nicholas Hytner and landing a small part in the play Travelling Light which came to the Theatre Royal in 2012. Joining The Two Worlds of Charlie F. after the rest of the cast, he soon fell under its spell.
With a new tour of the play about to begin, both men relish the prospect of more ovations. The Royal British Legion relish the prospect of more people being alerted to their valuable role in supporting those who make great personal sacrifices.
The play runs at the Theatre Royal from April 28 to May 3. Box office: 08448 112121.