If you’re casting for a bluff, ex-fighter who’s been around the block a bit, to be a no-nonsense mentor to a group of servicemen who are mentally and physically scarred by war, then you need look no further than hard-man actor Ray Winstone.
It sounds like the screenplay to an Oscar-winning film (a big hint to any writers out there). Battle-scarred soldiers are offered “arty-farty” acting as therapy and surprise everyone – including themselves – by delivering performances of a lifetime.
But, before they could receive their standing ovations and five-star reviews from hardened West End critics, they needed a bit of tough love as they struggled to cope in a hostile and alien battlefield like the arts.
Celebrity ambassador Winstone stormed into rehearsals of ground-breaking The Two Worlds Of Charlie F to give its cast, all injured combat soldiers, a typical foul-mouthed but inspirational speech to get them back on track. It did the trick.
They went out on stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and told their stories. Some were amputees, others suffering stress and trauma but they overcame impossible odds to triumph on stage.
Such was its success, both in the West End and on tour, that the production’s creator, Alice Driver, is rolling out a sequel, starring the stories of service personnel and their families from Buckinghamshire and Plymouth.
Its likely to then be used as a template for future projects involving the forces and the arts.
Ray is, once again, leading from the front.
The actor and TV’s Amanda Redman, his wife in the film hit Sexy Beast and back soon on ITV, again as Ray’s wife in the thriller The Trials Of Jimmy Rose, went to Aylesbury Waterside Theatre to publicise The Bravo 22 Company Bucks Legacy Project and it’s clear it is something he feels passionately about.
“I thought this was a great idea,” he told Stage Review.
“I was an ‘erbert when I was a kid but when my mum and dad sent me to drama school it was an education. I met people from all over the world.
“I know what it’s like to walk into a room and people stare at you and when it first happened to me many years ago I was like an angry young man.
“In a way it’s the same for them. If you’ve just lost an arm or both legs or you’re disfigured or mentally scarred, to walk into a room is not an easy thing.
“The idea of doing it through theatre is fantastic. If you can stand on a stage and tell your story in front of possibly thousands of people it gives you confidence and builds self-esteem.
“I never thought it would go as big as it did. But if it could help just 20 servicemen then it has done its job.
“But it’s helped a lot more than that – not just the people who did the play, but those service personnel who went and saw the play.
“You listen to them talk after the performance. It’s like a breath of fresh air. They’re not going to the cinema to watch some American gung-ho war movie with violins playing. It’s there, on stage, in its glory, in the blood, the mud and the beer, and it’s a voice that comes from them”.
Ray got involved when he was approached by project manager Alice Driver who was battling the Establishment over her radical ideas to help, through theatre, tough and battle hardened combat personnel who had returned traumatised by war.
Later, after one too many beers, he volunteered for a tour of duty on the front line and found himself on a plane to Afghanistan to spend a week with the troops.
“I’ve played tough guys and gangsters but you can’t compare it to what they went through. You get off a plane and you see a group of kids. Then you discover that these young girls are working on bomb disposal. I thought they were having a laugh. They’re the same age as my daughter.
“I asked to go out and went out on patrol with a few guys, which was stupid because you’re putting their lives in danger.
“I wanted a fag so they pulled up. Suddenly one of ‘em said: ‘Don’t move.’ And, at my feet, was an unexploded mortar shell. The Afghani kids pick them up to melt down and sell but they blow their arms off.
“I put my wife through agony for a week so can you imagine what families go through when their kids are away for six or nine months?
“I was so pleased I did it because I now understand it better. They are the bravest people I have ever met in my life.
“Yes, I had to give the original cast a bit of a talking to. There was a lack of belief in themselves, a little bit of fear, and some were on medication. The drink, the drugs, the pain – I can’t imagine what they were going through.
“They had trouble learning lines. The day for the show was drawing closer, and you can’t pussyfoot around, so I just had to let them have it. They were letting everyone down. All credit to them they sorted themselves out.
“The Two Worlds Of Charlie F left me dumbstruck. It was hugely emotional. That’s what theatre is.
“This new project includes mums, dads and kids. It’s easy to forget about them.
“Can you imagine what they go through? I’m terrible when my daughter does up the West End for a night out, and she doesn’t phone, so what’s it like for them when their kids are in Afghanistan?
“I don’t like war. I wish our kids didn’t have to go and do that. They shouldn’t have to. We’re more barbaric now than we have ever been, but there’s a dignity with them and a pride.
“The anger that comes with the injuries and the lack of care and love when they come home, not by their own but by the people who send them out there, is shameful.
“Something like this, which is trying to do something with the Ministry Of Defence, The Royal British Legion and others, is changing that.
“I don’t support war. I’m supporting those fighting to keep our freedom and make it safer for our children. I’m proud to be British. I’m an Englishman and we sometimes get embarrassed by saying that.”
The new production, still untitled, takes to the stage at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre , March 26-28. Tickets now on sale
It will be rolled out at Theatre Royal, Plymouth, later this year.