In amongst all the other news about government business yesterday, there were renewed claims that the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a bungled affair. Hardly news in and of itself but it was a timely reminder that quite apart from the problems this caused for people living there, it also became a factor in the increased number of British army personnel suffering from PTSD. Tim Evers who runs the charity Help For Heroes is on record as saying that the withdrawal “has effectively ripped the band aid off and revealed that scab of old wounds. We’re getting calls from people in a lot of distress asking: ‘Why did we go? Was it worth it?'”
One such sufferer, ex-soldier turned author Neil Blower brought his experiences to bear in his 2011 novel Shell Shock: The Diary Of Tommy Atkins which chronicles the life of a 20-something squaddie who finds his life in Civvy Street is persistently undermined by flashbacks, bouts of barely supressed anger and failing personal relationships. Smokescreen Productions adapted the text into a touring one man show simply called Shell Shock using it to disseminate information about the condition and help to publicise charities which supported sufferers. Unable to offer the live experience during the pandemic, it has now been released as an online video in association with the NHS Armed Forces Network.
While I’m sure the live experience would have been a powerful one, this filmed version does not pull its punches either as we follow the progress, or rather disintegration, of the appropriately named Tommy Atkins. After his discharge he returns to live with his parents (who have their own set of problems) thinking that the world will beat a path to his door to offer him employment; he is sadly mistaken. His personal relationship with girlfriend ‘Chelle suffers, even when they move in together and he finds the minutiae of domestic life hard to process. He doesn’t want to socialise or make small talk, loathes shopping trips, finds queuing at the Post Office disproportionately stressful and compares a trip to IKEA as like “a bad day in Basra” (actually, he’s probably got a valid point about that last one). He’s also haunted by the untimely death of a fallen comrade and feels guilt that it wasn’t him. Across the fifteen months covered by the narrative his world quite speedily unravels and he finds himself floundering without apparent support.
Following the diary format of the original, adapter and performer Tim Marriott presents the piece as a vlog which means the audience receives a direct address from the central figure and are drawn into the storyline. Having not seen it before it is perhaps invidious to make comparisons but it did occur to me that it might be a stronger piece for being presented in this enhanced format where newsreel footage of the conflict can be introduced effectively. Each scene is relatively brief and is placed in a real rather than the stylised context which would be necessary on stage. Marriott is clearly older than the protagonist was meant to be, but in this instance it matters less than the ability to put over the narrative. This is of paramount importance and the actor does it well, leavening the tension with some well placed humour and adopting an everyman quality which suits the role. It’s also clearly a part with which Marriott is more than familiar having performed it on stage across a number of years. In any case, if Ian McKellen can play Hamlet at 82, maybe the era of age blind casting is finally upon us.
This is a strongly written and performed piece which deserves a wider audience and which will hopefully help to publicise the work of the connected charities and support groups. Although the outcomes of the piece are largely predictable/inevitable there is a strong narrative drive and imperative in listening to this first hand testimony. It’s a play that is certainly worthy of attention.