Edinburgh Fringe 2022
A brutally honest exposé of life in the army and its often traumatic after effects.
Like too many people, Russell Pollard lost a loved one to Covid, in this case his mother whom he credits with igniting his interest in the performing arts, albeit strictly from the audience side of the curtain.
However, until now, Pollard has never been to, never mind performed at, the Fringe. His only other appearance in front of an audience came back in the early 1980’s when he had a pivotal (but non-speaking) role as third angel from the right in his primary school’s annual Nativity. So, he confesses to feeling a little out of his comfort zone in the intimate setting of Greenside’s Riddles Court up on the teeming Royal Mile.
The idea for this thirty minute “warts and all” exposé of his life in the army and its related fallout came out of the PhD in Creative Writing and Mental Wellbeing that he is currently rushing to finish before its early autumn deadline.
His interest in and obvious proclivity for storytelling has, in his own words, helped him deal with and (to a degree) overcome the traumatic impact of the PTSD that was the end result of a decade or more attempting to uphold democracy for Queen and country. Human storytelling is essential to our wellbeing, he tells us as he paces around the small stage, a bundle of nervous energy.
Stories warn of dangers, make us laugh and bring us together. And telling them often helps the teller in their search for the deep, buried truth – in Pollard’s case the trauma he experienced and suffered once his life in the army flipped from being one of playing lots of sports and drinking plenty of ale to one of being target practice for the Taliban and other enemies of HMG.
Using a script to cover the main part of this engaging and informative monologue, Pollard pulls no punches in his analysis of what his army life was about – more a case of fighting for oil , influence and control than upholding democracy, often with equipment that was patently not fit for purpose and an almost complete absence of post conflict aftercare. The “benefits” of the latter are likely to result an estimated 75,000 military personnel requiring some form of mental health support over the next decade according to a recently completed independent study.
It’s difficult for us, the audience, to imagine what it’s like to be under live fire but Pollard’s way with words and clever use of dark humour – army craic if you like – does a pretty good job. He describes graphically the delusion of safety engendered by the adrenalin high that takes over when someone is trying to blow large holes in you and the dangers (mental and otherwise) of the inevitable deep lows that follow when the firing stops. And the difficulty of then explaining what you’ve been through to your loved ones when you finally get to return home. It rather puts the drama of queuing for a ferry or getting stuck in an airport lounge for an unscheduled hour or two into perspective.
This show took a lot of courage. Courage on the part of Pollard to expose his troubled recent past to a random bunch of people. Courage to speak frankly about the deficiencies still evident in one of the UK’s more venerable institutions. Courage to step out of his comfort zone and flip to the performing side of the curtain.
But this is a show that deserves a wider audience so perhaps Pollard will be back with a more developed version of it next year. By his own admission, his connection with his audience was better when he was “off script” rather than clinging to his very well written core story. Pollard is a natural, open and engaging raconteur whose empathy dealt with a difficult subject without diluting the message. Let’s hope he comes back with more tastes of sweat and sand.