Will Featherstone (Jack Twigg)
Will Featherstone (Jack Twigg)
James Garnon (Harold Gilles)
Dickon Tyrell (Lieutenant Hardy), Will Featherstone (Jack Twigg), Keith Ramsay (Private Pearce)
Howard Brenton writes an effortlessly entertaining play about World War 1 plastic surgeon Harold Gillies
Would it be controversial to say that the only two playwrights who’ve really cracked writing for the Globe are William Shakespeare and Howard Brenton? Okay, the former’s kind of a given. But Brenton’s ‘Anne Boleyn’ is the one great modern play to have emerged from the theatre’s lively new writing programme. And while his latest doesn’t match it, John Dove’s production fills the yawning space with beguiling ease.
‘Doctor Scroggy’s War’ is nominally about the pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies (James Garnon), an enlightened eccentric of the old imperial mould who genuinely believed that laughter was the best medicine (well, laughter and skin grafts). To that end he adopted the mischievous alter ego of Doctor Scroggy, a silly Scottish stereotype (kind of like a less PC Mrs Doubtfire) who kept his patients – all men horribly disfigured by the Great War – amused with hijinks and booze. Lots of booze.
But Brenton knows an oddball surgeon isn’t quite the character to tug the heartstrings. So the true protagonist is in fact the fictional Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), an East End barrow boy’s son dun good who transcends his humble upbringing to entrance arch noblewoman Penelope Wedgewood (a dazzlingly charismatic Catherine Bailey) and become an aide to Field Marshal French (Paul Rider). Unfortunately he then gets shot in the face and becoming Gillies/Scroggy’s latest patient.
Twigg is basically one big dramatic cliché. But Brenton knows that sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for, a sturdily familiar through thread to cling to while he deftly bombards us with historical fact and period detail. Brenton both elevates the memory of the extraordinary Gillies, and also gives a real sense of a Britain dominated and hampered by the absurd, arrogant aristocracy who led it to nineteenth century triumph and twentieth century disaster.
Ultimately, ‘Doctor Scroggy’s War’ is too expositionary and too predictable, with the contrivances really stacking up at the end. But as a big entertainment with a serious message, it hits the spot as only Howard Brenton knows how.
‘Dr Scroggy’s War’ opened yesterday at my favourite venue, Shakespeare’s Globe, written by Howard Brenton and starring one of its most accomplished and brilliant alumni James Garnon. If you’re interested in Pat Barker’s‘Regeneration’ series or her latest novel ‘Toby’s Room’then this is the play for you.
In fact, the latter mentions the subject of the play in it; Dr Harold Gillies and his pioneering work on plastic surgery at The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup during the First World War. Naturally, though, we have to have a narrative to follow, a particular individual to introduce us to this hospital, and in this case it’s one Jack Twigg (played with intensity by Will Featherstone), a nineteen-year-old son of a grocer who drops out of an Oxford scholarship to join the London Irish Regiment. Considering Dr Gillies is famous for facial reconstruction, I’m pretty sure you can imagine what his fate is…
Actually, Brenton cleverly references this feeling of inevitability in his script, and relates it back to what the soldiers must have felt at the time. Jack’s experiences not only allow us a soldier’s perspective, but also highlight the class differences. He is a self-styled gentleman, and so is in between the working class common soldier and the posh snobby officers and field marshalls. This means we get to see the humanity of both sides, and the feeling of helplessness that pervades throughout the army, as well as seeing the injustices of the class system.
Jack also provides the source for another, perhaps more pertinent question in this age of UKIP: what does ‘being British’ mean? The young man is determined to go back to the army despite his traumatic experience, supposedly because he won’t be a ‘traitor’. Yet even after a shock revelation as to his ancestors’ nationality from his parents he doesn’t change his mind. So… does that mean there is a different definition of being British? Or is he using his patriotism as an excuse for his real deep desire for the fear and excitement of being in battle?
However, for me, whilst these questions were interesting and well portrayed, the real highlight of the play was Garnon’s Dr Gillies, an eccentric genius with the best interests of his patients always on his mind. In fact, so much so, that whilst Dr Gillies is the matter-of-fact surgeon who fixes the body, he invents an alter-ego – one Dr Scroggy by name; a bearded, high-spirited Scotsman who sneaks in alcohol, jokes with the patients and through this more unconventional relationship, helps fix their minds at the same time. Garnon is a perfect choice for this role; intelligent, kind and funny, and yet clearly deeply moved by the plight of these young men. Although he jokes about not wanting the new perfect faces he has created to get all broken up again, one can tell that, whilst passionate about his work, it is the men he really cares about.
He is supported by head nurse, Catherine Black; and Garnon is likewise supported by Rhiannon Oliver. Both as actors and characters, these two are perfect together, each a tower of strength, each supporting the other and yet putting the needs of their patients above everything else. I found all the hospital scenes so interesting and entertaining (especially one where Queen Mary comes to visit!) that I almost wished there were more of them, especially in the first act. The Queen Scene, as I will now call it, also showed one of the best elements of the script, when Her Majesty greets one of the nursing staff by name and her colleagues look completely taken aback by this familiarity. These little moments gave us a little glimpse into the back stories of some of the characters without labouring the point.
One of the flaws of this play for me is that the script sometimes feels a little contrived and over-the-top; a particular line I recall was Penelope, Jack’s love interest, dramatically declaiming: “I didn’t know it was him. I didn’t know it was Jack.” This type of repetition just felt clumsy and didn’t get the true feelings of the character across. And, I stress, this wasn’t a reflection of the actress, Catherine Bailey(who really reminded me of Katherine Jakeways), as she was great the rest of the play, especially when we saw her vulnerability towards the end. It just felt like there were too many ‘damn’s and ‘tophole’s stuck in there to emphasise the period and it wasn’t necessary.
This was not, however, a huge impediment to the play’s success. The cast are very good: especially Katy Stephens as both Jack’s mum, and a very good-humoured Queen Mary,Joe Jameson as Jack’s best friend Lord Ralph and William Mannering as the down-to-earth Corporal Fergal O’Hannagan. And, on a slightly unrelated note, did anyone else think Paul Rider (playing Field Marshall John French) would make an excellent Poirot?!
Overall, this is a very interesting play and a great production. Garnon shines throughout; it’s only ashame he isn’t on-stage more. Featherstone makes a likeable lead, all the more so because his friend and family are portrayed so movingly. The script can feel a little contrived and dated at times, but mostly is witty and touching. A small band of trumpet, piano and strings sitting above the stage in military uniform really help add to the atmosphere. The sheer quantity of dead at the battle of Loos is shocking, even more so as the bald statistics are suddenly read out by a young, unknown soldier half way through. Basically it’s very similar to many other plays and movies about World War One, but Dr Gillies and his staff add the extra point of interest that make this production worth seeing.
’Dr Scroggy’s War’ at Shakespeare’s Globe:3/5 stars