Warheads (Park Theatre)

Warheads (Park Theatre, until September 7th)

⭐⭐⭐

The mental and physical anguish endured by young soldiers returning from active duty during war is the focus of Taz Skylar’s hard-hitting and emotionally draining drama Warheads, currently playing at the Park Theatre after brief outings in Tottenham and Peckham last year.

It’s the sort of shocking work that demands to be seen by anyone affected by or interested to know more about the agony of post traumatic stress disorder, not just how it affects those in the armed forces.

Based on a true story the drama never fails to deliver painful punches. It is quite likely that many would be able to identify with the sense of depression and guilt and the nightmares invading everyday life – and the near impossibility of being able to treat or deal with the issue fully.

The play takes as its core the disquieting truth that young soldiers sent off to fight in Afghanistan were often not even old enough to play age-restricted violent shooter video warfare games such as Call of Duty yet were sent into terrible combat and expected to cope as normal on coming back home. Childhood games of war in the backyard and teenage angst-driven online gaming are no preparation for the real thing.

It is a play that is filled with ideas – perhaps too many to be dealt with satisfactorily in 85 minutes – and ultimately it is hard to know precisely where it is going: is it trying to place the blame on a society that so often unquestioningly treats war as a game or on woefully inadequate trauma counselling or is it simply, first and foremost, showing the devastating effects of going off to fight, a theme much in the public consciousness owing to the centenary of the ending of World War One last year? Either answer makes it a worthwhile watch.

In Warheads an ineffective therapist tries to help 19-year-old Miles (played with unbearable intensity by Skylar himself) on his return, but like so many he is broken beyond repair. This is a man who is already edgy and the performance is nail-bitingly effective.

Skylar, who wrote the play with Ross Berkeley Simpson, never loses the cheekiness of his unsullied teenage years, making the subsequent torment he experiences all the more harrowing. The play’s short and snappy scenes make the nightmare sense of unknowing and pain even more dreadful, though there is a real danger that this approach makes the whole too piecemeal and even superficial.

There is certainly no quick solution to the torture caused by what he has witnessed and experienced and the play suggests that even the most well-meaning help and support is likely to make things worse.

What is very clear is that this is a subject with which he is all too familiar and he writes and performs with a depth based on bitter experience. Indeed, Skylar barely seems able to acknowledge the applause at the end – every ounce of his being must feel battered and bruised each time the piece is performed.

Importantly we see the effect one person’s suffering has on those around him: his girlfriend (Klariza Clayton), and mate Mory (Hassan Najib) – himself badly affected by the horrors of warfare – as well as a great turn by Joseph Connolly as camp Coby (occasionally able to relieve the tension with some outrageous comment or action).

The caring profession does care (in the shape of Sophie Couch’s naive therapist) but cannot fully understand the problems (a reference to a night out seeing the band Syndrome is mistakenly assumed to be the patient recognising that he is undergoing something that needs treatment).

Meanwhile the Army consists of plenty who are going through the same thing; Craig Fairbrass, in menacing form as the Captain, is an ever dark presence, one of the spectres haunting sleeping and waking dreams.

The play unfolds as the lead character’s mind unravels. “It’s like I’m trying to wake up all the time. It’s like I’m there but I’m not there,” says Miles as his life grows more and more screwed. And the distressing reality is that for Miles and his friends and countless others the memories are not easy to erase and one has a feeling that the scars never fade.

Toby Clarke’s pacy direction gathers together the disparate threats of the story allowing for no let-up in the constant pummelling of the words and drama, while Roly Botha’s sound design effectively throws speeches and noise into the cluttered cauldron of the mind.

If we fail to understand or respond to PTSD and mental illness properly, the gripping play suggests, then the inevitable outcome will be deadly.

Disappointingly a number in the press night audience decided that this was a production that deserved loud laughter and clapping throughout – we can only hope that someone in the foyer afterwards pointed out their inappropriateness and discourtesy and perhaps why it was particularly unwelcome in a play dealing with this topic in the way it did. The whole point of the piece is that we fail to listen properly and audiences need to pay full attention to the punchy drama.

Warheads is one of those important and significant plays that deals directly with a very real issue of our time in an enlightening, disconcerting and horrifying new way. In truth, there are moments where one feels more attention could be paid to a plot strand or to the overall intention of the piece, but a chance to play four weeks at the Park should help in ironing out flaws and developing the objectives and the fact that many in the audience leave silently, mulling over the sharp storytelling, suggests that some of the message at least has hit home.

David Guest

Image, Marcus Kartal

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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