Young Eastbourne-based actor Tom Page plays a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder in this one-man show. EDWIN GILSON met Page and director Tim Marriott.

AT ONE point in Kurt Vonnegut’s book about World War Two, Slaughterhouse 5, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim says: “People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” Yet as any war veteran knows (Vonnegut included), forgetting past experience and trauma is not so easy.

Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder were documented as early as World War One, with soldiers suffering severe shock in the trenches as shells rained around them, but it wasn’t recognised as a mental health condition until 1980. PTSD permeates veteran Neil Blower’s semi-autobiographical first novel Shell Shock: The Diary of Tommy Atkins. The story documents 23 year-old Tommy’s attempts to re-acclimatize to normal life – or “civvy street” as Blower calls it – after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an article, Blower wrote: “I’m not a war writer. I prefer to think of myself as a writer who’s been to war, and still carries the scars.” It doesn’t help that one of the most frequent questions he is asked is ‘how many people have you killed?’ Having spent time with Blower and seen the impact of war trauma on the ex-solider, Tom Page and Tim Marriott are well placed to stage his story.

“If he was sitting here now and you asked him questions about it [his experience] he wouldn’t be able to answer and the interview would be over,” says Marriott, who classes his brand of theatre as “issue-based drama”. Page and Marriott worked with charities Help for Heroes and Combat Stress, both of whom work with soldiers as they come to terms with life after conflict. The production is in conjunction with Sussex Armed Forces Network. Shell Shock is also defined as a “stigma reduction concept”.

“The military are trained to respond instantly, to all situations, and the natural response is buried,” says Marriott. “When people leave the military, a number of years go by and those experiences bubble up. “It all comes back bit by bit – it doesn’t get smaller, it grows. Being a very macho culture, the response is always ‘I’m fine, everyone else has the problem’.

“It’s a particularly British thing not to show your emotions, coupled with this pressure on us to be strong and resilient. What we’re trying to do is get past the stigma and recognise the signs of trauma.”

In the play, Tommy experiences flashbacks in such innocuous places as the post office and IKEA. Page uses his talent, along with canny use of sound effects, to display the balance between mundane urban life and the turmoil inside his character’s head. The young actor spent an unhappy year in cadets at school.

“When I was developing the character I went to Help for Heroes for research purposes and was told about soldiers who heard one noise and flipped a table over,” he says. “I tried to make it as truthful as possible, to use what we had instead of making it up.” Marriott adds that “for Neil, flashbacks can happen anywhere. They are triggered by specific sounds and sights”. He uses a scene from spoof movie Spinal Tap, of all things, to explain how the production renders Tommy’s inner chaos.

“We whack it [the sound effects] up to 11. Audiences might be thinking ‘where’s this going?’ and when whoa, it gets intense. That’s the tragedy of what’s happening inside his head.” The narrative of Shell Shock revolves mostly around Tommy’s relationships with his family, friends and girlfriend – all of which go sour as the solider retreats further into himself and his memories and away from the real world.

“It’s about the slow demise of the slow demise of those connections,” says Merriott. Tom adds that Tommy “pushes people away because he can’t come to terms with his trauma”.

Without giving too much away, Tommy’s struggle to adjust to reality after war is played out in highly dramatic fashion. Some of the character’s outbursts have comedic elements to them; not that Marriott intended to make light of the issue. When he previewed the show to a group of children at Eastbourne College, there were lots of laughs.

When it was displayed to veterans, there was silence – until a rousing reception at the end. It’s not just ex-soldiers that can empathise with Blower’s story, though; as Marriott points out, most people have suffered trauma in some way or another.

“It might be a car crash or the death of a baby or any kind of illness. The trauma can lead to stress, and if that’s not treated it can lead to dysfunction and disorder. You haven’t gone to Afghanistan and shot someone because you thought they were wearing a suicide bomb, but there are things everyone revisits in their head.”

Shell Shock, The Old Market, Hove, tonight, 8pm