Imagine how difficult it is for an actor to portray inertia on stage…a state where the character is so traumatised he doesn’t want to engage with anybody or anything. Then imagine how much more difficult it is if the actor can’t use any facial expressions to help him convey that state of mind….because he’s wearing a full mask.
That’s the challenge facing James Greaves who plays an 18-year-old foot soldier sent home from Afghanistan with an injured trigger figure and a serious case of Post Traumatic Stress. But James is a veteran mask/mime artist of the highest quality and – in a five-handed masterclass of this rare and beautiful art – he uses his whole body and the even, it seems, the very air around him to convey a living hell; bringing tears the audience’s eyes in the process.
Vamos Theatre Company has come a very long way in the past decade. In their early shows there was always the temptation to keep the audience laughing out loud between the moments of poignancy. Now, Rachael Savage and her team have the confidence of supreme success to go for the jugular…to take a hugely distressing and guilt-making subject and lay it bare – without speaking a single word. The masks these days are much more naturalistic. (Gone are the popping eyes). And the gestures are so much more intricate and subtle. At times the cast are conveying a whole, far-reaching dilemma with just their figure tips. Doing ‘A Brave Face’ has been a brave move.
It all started with a wheelie-bin. Rachael read a story about a former squaddie who came home and hid in one, rather than face the world. The idea is translated straight on to stage. Ryan’s mother, glad to have her son home despite his condition, can’t find him. So, she calls his mobile, only to hear it ringing inside her wheelie-bin.
Shorn of words, her attempts to coax him out of it are heart breaking to watch. Finally, she manages to raise the lid just enough to touch fingers with her son. And it’s the beginning of the road to some sort of equilibrium.
Played out against a background of military mesh and harsh projections, the story moves between Middlesbrough and the battle zone. Ryan and his kid sister play with an X-box together – before he’s recruited and provided with more lethal weapons.
Seeing men stalking cagily around a stage with loaded machines guns is unnerving in any circumstances …but when those men are mute, they are even more menacing. Janie Armours thumping heartbeat soundtrack heightens the tension; which is broken by kindly moments. Ryan is befriended by a young Afghan girl who supplies him with cigarettes for money. She gives him bracelets to wear as a token of their friendship; but in a very telling twist, those bracelets become the manacles that shackle him to his awful memories. Finding her abandoned doll in the dirt is the last straw of Ryan’s sanity.
There is considerable humour in this production. The army training routines are a hoot – and a kid breaking wind is all the funnier when it’s mimed. Those watching with military connections will be warmed by the arrival of treasured ‘Blue-ies’ in the post and the parcels of Pot Noodles that arrive at camp. And the little old lady in ASDA, where Ryan gets a cleaning job, is hilarious as she berates a hopeless hoodie. These are trademark Vamos moments.
But make no mistake. This production pulls punch after punch after punch. It’s essential theatre … and it makes a difference. It’s not to be missed…under any circumstances.
Visit www.theatresevern.co.uk for bookings & information about Theatre Severn