Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Laughing Through Tears: "Doctor Scroggy's War" at the Globe

Another visit to the Globe Theatre in Southwark??  Yes 2014 has been the year when I lost my fear of that auditorium having seen three fine performances there: TITUS ANDRONICUS, ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and JULIUS CAESAR.  Oh and EILEEN ATKINS AS ELLEN TERRY in the new Wanamaker Playhouse!  Now here we were again, only this time it was to see a new play: DOCTOR SCROGGY'S WAR by Howard Brenton.  If it fell slightly short then that's to be understood when put against the Bard.

Brenton's play is part of the First World War Centenary and it was certainly odd to see a 'modern' piece on the familiar Globe stage - old habits die hard though so at the end of the play we had all the cast on stage for a merry jig.  That didn't quite sit well with what had gone before but that's the Globe for you.

It was also odd to see the side seats of the Globe noticeably sparser than for the Shakespeares - I am guessing that was a combination of the unknown quality of the play as well as the rainy weather that day.

Brenton's play is based on the remarkable Dr. Howard Gillies who during WWI pioneered plastic surgery techniques on the maimed and disfigured British soldiers returning from the Front.  What made his approach so unique was his insistence on the atmosphere within his hospital in Sidcup being upbeat and positive - in the play Gillies tells an astonished wounded soldier "We don't do glum here" - and the play has him dressing up as a zany Scottish doctor called Dr Scroggy, visiting the patients after hours with supplies of alcohol.

The trouble I had with the play was that I had read Pat Barker's TOBY'S ROOM earlier this year and, as good as much of the play was, it felt like a front-curtain skit compared to the epic drama of Barker's work.  Although Barker concentrated on the role of Henry Tonks, the former head of the Slade School of Art, who worked alongside Gillies by doing exhaustively-detailed drawings of the shattered faces and bodies of the soldiers, her book still touched on the gallows humour that ran through the patients.

In Brenton's play, we follow Jack Twigg, a young working-class lad who becomes an officer on his first tour of duty in France but when badly wounded during the battle of Loos, he is returned to England and Gillies' wards at Sidcup.  Here his initial depression and sniping anger slowly changes as he begins to reap the rewards of Gillies' approach.  We follow his confrontations with his shocked parents, his high-society girlfriend and even Queen Mary.

In another echo of Pat Barker's work - only this time her REGENERATION trilogy - we also witness the dichotomy of Twigg and several of his fellow patients who, once returned to an acceptable level of facial recovery, wish to return to active service in France.  Gillies and Twigg's girlfriend Penelope, who has left her nursing job to become an anti-war protester with Sylvia Pankhurst, cannot accept that he would want to return but for Jack it is not a case of wanting to but needing to.


John Dove's production was swift and well-balanced between the humour and the more serious debates about soldiers in wartime, patriotism etc. and he elicited very good lead performances from James Garnon as the ebullient Dr. Gillies and Will Featherstone as the idealistic Jack Twigg.

In a strong supporting cast, mostly drawn from the JULIUS CAESAR company, there were very good performances from Patrick Driver and Katy Stephens as the naive and loving Mr & Mrs Twigg, Catherine Bailey as the liberated Penelope, Sam Cox and Paul Rider made a fine double act as the feuding Sir Douglas Haig and Sir John French (and interesting to see them played for once not as the villains of the piece) and William Mannering as Corporal Fergal O'Halloran, an Irish soldier who yearns to return to Ireland and the struggle for independence.

Despite it feeling like a re-tread of Barker's better works, I still found a lot to enjoy in Howard Brenton's play and this production of it and it certainly made the case that the story of the wounded soldier and his place in the country he is fighting for is as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.

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