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.