Two Help for Heroes beneficiaries have taken to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of their road to recovery.
Matt Wightman and Dave Shaw, along with Dave’s wife Linda, are performing in the premiere of Unspoken – a moving play which explores the aftermath of trauma and injury – as part of Bravo 22 Company, The Royal British Legion’s arts-based recovery programme.
Unspoken is set in a Royal British Legion club where a disparate regiment of soldiers, sailors and airmen have gathered to chat, drink and watch live entertainment. It reflects the experiences of love, loss, loneliness and hope that are the reality for sick and wounded veterans and their families, with the 15-strong cast made up exclusively by forces veterans and their families.
Former Army corporal Dave Shaw was serving with the Royal Signals when he was injured while serving in Bosnia in 1996. Dave, from Dinnington, Newcastle, was medically discharged after damage to his neck and back resulted in a major spine operation and was later diagnosed with PTSD.
Dave, 53, who takes medication to manage his chronic pain, eventually engaged with Help for Heroes’ Rolling Recovery Programme, took up cycling after the charity awarded him a grant to buy a recumbent bike and went on to win a silver medal in the 2016 Warrior Games. He got involved with Bravo 22 Company in a front of house role in their Newcastle theatre project in 2016 after wife Linda convinced him to get involved. He then gained the confidence to put himself forward for a part in Unspoken.
He said: “Doing Unspoken has been brilliant, it has taken us out of our comfort zone. I wouldn’t be doing this without the help I’ve had from Help for Heroes. I’m living proof that once you’re injured, you’re not finished.”
Dave plays Michael, a veteran who returns to the club he used to run as a ghost. “My character interweaves the whole play. We’ve had veterans come along to watch and saying now they know they are not the only one who feels like they do. One ex-RAF guy said it was the best therapy session he has ever had and he felt ready to re-engage with support.”
Wife Linda, 55, plays Dave’s character’s wife Mary in the play and was keen to share her experiences of what it is like to live with someone who has PTSD. She said: “It’s been fabulous. I first got involved with Bravo 22 when I worked on Wor Stories in Newcastle with director Gary Kitching. A friend had told me they needed more women to take part so I thought I would get involved. It is good to show what it’s like from the wives’ perspective when their partners come back with physical and mental injuries.”
Matt Wightman, who lives near Catterick in North Yorkshire, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2015 after tours of Northern Ireland and Bosnia in the 80s and 90s with the 1st Battalion The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was referred to Help for Heroes and Phoenix House Recovery Centre, where he built his confidence with activities including mountain skills, a performing arts courses and a guitar workshop.
Matt, 49, who has also acted with an amateur dramatics group in Richmond, said: “Being at Phoenix House took me to a better place. Help for Heroes got me to a point where I wanted to go in a different direction. My sister said after my diagnosis that she always thought I would have gone on stage if I hadn’t joined the army. Now it’s all fallen into place. It’s been a fantastic adventure.”
Unspoken is dedicated to The Royal British Legion’s ‘Thank You’ movement, which aims to thank the whole First World War generation. Playwright Gary Kitching interviewed 100 veterans and spouses from Bravo 22 Company to create a piece of theatre that is an honest and unsentimental reimagining of their experiences. The number was symbolic of the centenary of the end of World War I.
Gary Kitching says: “These aren’t people who want sympathy. They just want to tell their story and be better understood. People go into the forces and it changes their lives, not always for the worse, far from it. But some are injured – it may be physical and visible or something unseen.
“I spoke to people all around the country and have tried to reflect their stories and experiences, characters, culture and the challenges they face. And if ever there was a time to think about how much has been endured by so many, it must be the anniversary of the end of the First World War.”
Unspoken is made possible by The Royal British Legion and The Drive Project, with the support of Newcastle Theatre Royal and actor Ray Winstone who is The Drive Project and Bravo 22 Company’s ambassador. It is touring to Liverpool, Birmingham and London during September and October.