Brighton Fringe 2018
Afghanistan: 2009. Ryan is there to see the world, learn a trade, get a life. Training’s complete, combat is a buzz. But on one particular hot and desperate tour of duty, Ryan sees things he can’t talk about, to anyone. And when he returns home, the trouble really begins. ‘A Brave Face’ explores post-traumatic stress, an unseen and often unrecognised injury of war, and the impact it can have on even the closest of families. With compassion and fearlessness, Vamos brings its trademark, wordless, full mask style to a story that needs to be told.
Vamos bring a new show to the Warren each May and every time it feels like the Fringe’s best kept secret. Their shows are unfailingly relevant, funny and human, which is perhaps all the more surprising because the actors are masked. To describe the impact of their performances as phenomenal is no exaggeration. Each mask is different and unbelievably well-observed. Made by Russell Dean, first as clay models, then in varnished plastic, each face, with a hairstyle added, becomes an instantly relatable human character. When you add in the actors’ vital embodiment of the physicality of the person they are playing and a plot line that is accessible and engaging, the audience gets to the heart of the matter unbelievably fast. The effecting is disarming. By wearing masks, Vamos somehow magically unmask their characters and, though they never speak, we connect with them emotionally on their everyday journeys in a remarkable way.
Writer/director Rachel Savage has spent two years researching Post-Traumatic stress with military and ex-military personnel and their families. At Saturday’s performance some of these people were in the audience, making the occasion especially moving, but never mawkish. On stage, the five performers take multiple roles to tell the story of new recruits, best friends, Ryan and Ravi, undergoing military training and a subsequent tour of duty in Afghanistan. There is a continuous soundtrack so this never feels like a pretentious, reverent ritual, but instead, an actual barracks where banter and rapport are established, amazingly, without words. Joanna Holden plays both Khatera, an Afghan girl and Katie, younger sister of 18 yearold Ryan. Ryan slowly develops a friendship with the little girl that mirrors his affection for Katie. His training has taught him stealth, wariness, instant reactions. The tension between these newly-acquired reflexes and the human need for relaxation and connection are beautifully evoked.
It was a relief to me, after wearing ear plugs at three consecutive Brighton Festival events, that, here, the effects of military raids and gunfire were achieved without deafening noise. In fact, if anything, the audio impact of this section could be slightly heightened and intensified.
The result is that Ryan returns to his family, a shadow of his former self. But there is nothing clichéd about Vamos’s treatment of the effects of PTSD on Ryan and his family. Never losing sight of the humour inherent in day to day interaction with bureaucracy, doctors, shoppers and family, ‘A Brave Face’ tells this hugely important story with unflinching authenticity and humanity. Angela Laverick, as Ryan’s mother, is unspeakably moving in a scene where the image used to show Ryan’s sense of worthlessness is unforgettably simply but effective. The entire ensemble (James Greaves, Joanna Holden, Sean Kempton, Angela Laverick and Rayo Patel) must be congratulated for their focused work in an environment where behind-the-scenes costume/mask changes must be frantic and there are no dialogue cues to listen out for.
This is a piece for everyone over 10 and should be seen at all costs as it continues to tour. Or else, make Vamos a sure date in your diary for next May.