"Stop my mind from ticking"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 04/07/12

'Paper Tom' by Handheld Arts is an outstanding play. This fiercely intelligent, compassionate and sometimes unbearably moving production looks unflinchingly at the cost of war to young soldiers, sent by politicians , (sometimes supported by the public, sometimes not), to face having to kill or be killed. 'Paper Tom' does not examine the roots of war, but the consequences to those who return, their bodies, minds and spirits forever changed by exposure to horror, fear , loss and suffering.
Handheld Arts say, 'Our work comes from our hearts'. That is evident; but so is the rigorous intelligence and outstanding talent that makes 'Paper Tom' unforgettable. Richard Simons and Steven Rodgers gave astonishing performances as soldiers coping with trench warfare in World War One and modern combat in Afghanistan. The connection between shell-shock and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is well made. Just how does a soldier return to domestic life when the memories of slaughter remain; activated for teacher Tom by chalk on a blackboard, or for rough diamond Richard when a kid whinges in the queue at Tesco's.
Sarah-Jane Wingrove and Ilana Winterstein were quietly moving as the wives of soldiers unable to share their experiences; hiding the truth and power of their memories in an attempt to protect those they love, forever changed by war. The contents of the parcels the wives sent their husbands might have changed over the decades, but the impulse remains the same. The simple gesture of kissing a letter connected lovers then and now.
'Paper Tom' is thought-provoking and well-thought out - not bombastic. It doesn't attack politicians or the arms trade (although I wanted to, and wished that Tony Blair and George Bush and his Neo-Con friends, for starters, could be compelled to watch it).
Handheld Arts spent two years researching their subject, intrigued initially by the story of Paper Jack, who left his job, wife and home after World War One. Homelessness is worryingly high among veterans. So many just feel they don't belong anymore. The charity Talking Minds works with those suffering from PTSD, and Handheld Arts spent a week with them, hearing first-hand stories of the condition and its impact on individuals, their families and society.
The technical side of the production was very effective and subtle, with excellent use of sound effects and projected images. Recurring themes - crumpled paper; healing colours; birds, especially cranes, pigeons and robins - were used with great skill, deepening a script that was sometimes lyrical, sometimes poignant, sometimes shocking; always convincing. The writing is assured and direct, confidently mixing passion, vulgarity and humour.
My companion and I were profoundly affected by 'Paper Tom'. Our beliefs about our work together with traumatised adolescents; our feelings as mothers of sons and our anguish about the consequences of war were all invoked.
Exeter's amazing Ignite festival - which includes 'Paper Tom' - is well worth supporting. There is a host of wonderful theatre happening this week.
I intend to hear much more about Handheld Arts, and Talking Minds.

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