Humour and trauma reveal the true face of war

11 Oct 2012 @ 8.34 am
| Entertainment
Plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe (Graeme Hawley) and Sister O'Donnell (Fiona Dolman) in The Guinea Pig Club. Photographs: Karl Andre Photography for York Theatre Royal

A new play and some fine performances shine new light on a forgotten war story, writes Helen Cadbury


Review: The Guinea Pig Club
Venue: York Theatre Royal

The Guinea Pig Club opens in an empty Second World War hangar. Over the course of the evening, this space is filled with the extraordinary story of Archibald McIndoe (played with warmth by Graham Hawley), a pioneering plastic surgeon, and the airmen whose lives he saved.

Far from a dry medical tale, Susan Watkins has written a play infused with humour and Damian Cruden’s direction is beautifully paced and visually stunning. The production mirrors McIndoe’s methods, life-affirming and highly entertaining, despite the presence of terrible suffering.

The paradox at the heart of this play is captured when McIndoe quotes Hippocrates: “War makes surgeons”. It’s true that phenomenal surgical and psychiatric advances are made in war zones. Even today, the best trauma care in the world is in Afghanistan.

The Guinea Pig club is 'life-affirming and highly entertaining'

This isn’t the only contemporary parallel at work here. The members of Ward III joke about inventing wheelchair football and challenge those who would stare to see them for who they are, not to be pitied or excluded: an echo of the Paralympic message.

The irony of the best plastic surgeon of his day patching up these young men,  only to send them back to their deaths, is subtly handled in one of the saddest moments of the play.

The cast populate Joanna Scotcher’s set with great physicality. It’s a pleasure to see Graham Hawley, the Devil in The Mystery Plays and Corrie’s arch baddy, play such a rounded character. Newcomer Rollo Skinner is startling believable as the acerbic Nick.

Anna O’Grady, as Nurse Harwood, gives a lovely performance as a young woman following unconventional orders, while trying to follow her heart. Stefano Braschi’s portrayal of airman Rusty Rushforth is fascinating, even though it’s painful to watch his suffering. Like a butterfly, he gradually emerges, not just in a partial return to his physical beauty, but by coming back to himself as a man.

As McIndoe demands that the ward be painted pink instead of the colour of dung, Richard Jones’s lighting design bathes the stage in soft colour. Sister O’Donnell (Fiona Dolman) disapproves of the ward being turned into a nightclub.

As McIndoe provides beer and a piano, Jones gives us electric blues and glowing reds as a backdrop to Sarah Applewood’s honey-voiced chanteuse. The songs punctuate the action as if we are sharing the injured airmen’s morphine induced dreams.

McIndoe brought a piano into the ward to help his young patients recover

If there was one thing to quibble about in this otherwise excellent production, it is Sister O’Donnell’s comment that the men should accept their fate, as she has accepted that marriage and a husband were not to be her lot. This line might ring true if Dolman were less pretty. In a play about faces, that detail is important.

The story behind the story is almost as fascinating as the play itself, so the programme really earns its cover price. Sad, funny, interesting and interspersed with songs from the period (arranged by Chris Madin) this is a production that deserves to have wings of its own and follow in the footsteps of The Railway Children in taking York’s talent to London.