Theatre: A Brave Face @ Tobacco Factory Theatres
by Polly Hember
Image courtesy of Vamos Theatre
How do you represent tender, powerful and poignant emotion on stage without the use of words and without facial expression? Vamos Theatre Productions triumphs in this feat with nuance, playfulness, tact and care whilst exploring the horrific effects of PTSD and the psychological aftermath of war.
A Brave Face took two years to come to life, carefully pieced together and informed by real experiences of former servicemen and their families. Set between 2009 – 2011, this incredible production follows the story of two young men, barely 18, as they join the military and get sent to Afghanistan. We witness touching and delightfully light-hearted friendships between comrades form, with lad banter, clever physicality and one particularly hilarious dance routine. On one desperate day, Ryan, our protagonist, and his friends are caught in crossfire and a bomb goes off, causing huge emotional and psychological trauma that follows him back home to his loving mother and little sister. After Ryan has seen something so terrible that words couldn’t begin to explain, Vamos’ wordless, tactile and poetic approach allows the audience to see the emotional bonds between soldiers and with their families; how these bonds suffer and support soldiers through their struggles.
Writer and director Rachael Savage provides a safe space for these wordless narratives to be heard, whilst also taking measures to support any veterans or audience members suffering from PTS. When we’re so used to sounds effects and huge explosions oversaturating any TV show or film about war, it’s almost shocking to have a production where there is no gunfire. The care and tact that has gone into every aspect of this production is palpable; when the bomb goes off, the audience is plunged into a hugely effective darkness. It is disorientating and telling all at once, and hugely respectful of their audience.
"After Ryan has seen something so terrible that words couldn’t begin to explain, Vamos’ wordless, tactile and poetic approach allows the audience to see the emotional bonds between soldiers and with their families; how these bonds suffer and support soldiers through their struggles."
The cast are phenomenal. On a hot summer evening, the Tobacco Factory Theatre felt hot, heavy, and almost desperately uncomfortable. Adding to the unease as the audience witnessed Ryan’s struggles with alcoholism and flashbacks, the heat fuelled the tension. It’s hard to imagine what performing under a full mask and wig was like in that heat. James Greaves is fantastic as Ryan; he is able to portray a jokey teen squabbling over Xbox controllers with his little sister and also the terrified, traumatised and shaking ex-soldier who turns to drink and violence. Greaves’ body language and stage presence allows him to portray the full spectrum of Ryan’s emotion and experience, resulting in a powerful and poignant portrayal. With a small cast of five, there were multiple characters played by the same actors, behind the masks and brilliant staging, this was seamless and hugely effective, allowing the story to span between the domestic sphere, training camp, Afghanistan, nightclubs, doctor’s surgeries and supermarkets.
The most touching relationships were those between Ryan, his mother (Angela Laverick) and his sister (Joanna Holden). Laverick presents doting, unfaltering love and support – this is hugely touching and heart-breaking as the family undergo the stress and trauma of PTSD. Holden is the star of the show; she is innocent and loving, and also wonderfully cheeky and charming.
In such a thoughtful and nuanced production, I was surprised at their representation of the NHS which seemed almost crass in comparison to their immense care they take with other aspects of the Ryan’s narrative; overloaded with forms to fill out that he can’t complete by himself with an injured hand and handed pills almost immediately after the doctor walks on stage. However, it’s worth noting that this is a story compiled by ex-soldiers, whose experience of the health service may have been brief and result in a prescription as opposed to desperately needed support.
This is one of the most beautiful and brave productions I have seen to date; it’s almost difficult to watch, the emotions are so vivid, the trauma is so palpable and the story so sad. At the centre lies the uplifting and redeeming power of friendship and family; whether it’s the embrace of your mother and sister, the friendly fistbump of a friend or the unlikely friendship Ryan makes with a young Afghanistan girl – Vamos presents them wordlessly with masks that, I swear, felt as if they came to life by the end of the production.
Playful, artful and brilliantly bold – A Brave Face tells a tale that deserves to be heard. Book tickets now to see them on the end of their nationwide tour, they are not to be missed.