This review of Doctor Scroggy's War first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.
This powerful production set in the 1st World War held the audience spellbound. Indeed, as we filed out at the end, its impact was palpable on our faces and the hushed tones of people’s comments – we too had been at Loos and the military hospital in Sidcup.
For its success, this play demands many sudden changes of key. Moments of broad comedy suddenly give way to ones of abject despair and vice versa but always there is a sense of impending doom in the background. In achieving this balance, Paul Morton’s production was faultless. Moreover, by bringing the action so close to the audience, and at times within the audience, he ensured our total involvement.
The play is very much an ensemble piece with many different roles, but inevitably everything falls on the shoulders of the two protagonists, Dr Gillies, the brilliant but eccentric surgeon, and the idealistic 19-year-old volunteer, Jack Twigg.
Jim Markey was totally convincing as the mercurial Harold Gillies with his lightning changes of mood from hyper hilarity one moment to furious anger or deep depression the next. It was a masterful portrayal of someone managing his awesome responsibilities as best he could. Certainly his other persona, the subversive Doctor Scroggy of the title, raised his patients’ spirits with high jinks in the wards after lights out, but just as clearly it was his way of dealing with intolerable pressure.
Gavin Palmer as Jack Twigg, the Oxford undergraduate intent on serving his country, faces pressures of a different kind. Ingenuous and gauche in the earlier scenes, he showed remarkable courage in sticking to his convictions when exposed to the wrath and patronising attitudes of his superior officers. Later, his spirit is apparently broken by his horrific injuries, but he feels driven to return to the front and pay the ultimate sacrifice. In all of this, Gavin Palmer made Twigg totally believable.
Harry Janes as Ralph, Jack’s university chum from a very different background, provided a complete contrast to our working class hero. Posh and polished, he gave a blistering rendering of self-righteous rage when Jack was given the promotion he felt was in the bag for him.
In command of the whole operation, Des Turner as Field Marshal Sir John French and Mel Powell as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig conveyed the natural sense of authority expected of men in their position but also their inner tensions and distrust of one another. It was a particularly telling moment when French apologised to Jack for ignoring Jack’s warning of a strategic error in the disposition of reserves before the Battle of Loos.
Corporal O’Hannagan (Chris Janes), “the only Irishman in the London Irish Rifles”, brought another aspect to the play with his contempt for the officers in general but respect for Jack. The scene when he told Jack he wouldn’t be returning to the front because of the Easter Rising was particularly moving.
Emma Muir as Penelope, glamorous and flirtatious in the earlier scenes, became utterly compelling as she grew into the independent woman who planned to join the movement against the war, a stance which ended her relationship with Jack.
Hannah Leonard as the no-nonsense ward sister managed with conviction her newly- recruited VADs (Rosamund Barnes and Charlotte Hepworth-Bell) and showed commendable patience when trying to manage Major Gillies, which gave rise to some poignant moments.
Ray Newton and Jan Palmer Sayer as Jack’s parents vividly captured the suffering the war caused to those left at home, heightened by incomprehension of the events that engulfed them. It was a heart-breaking moment when they witnessed their son returning to the front at the end of the play. Alex Brace and Mark James in a number of supporting roles completed the strong team.
The action was pacey but punctuated by occasional moments of profound stillness which reflected the drama unfolding. The creative team are to be congratulated on the superb lighting and sound effects; likewise the wardrobe for the authentic uniforms and the delightful confection worn by the Queen on her visit to the hospital.
The play had its first performance at the Globe Theatre in the autumn of 2014 as part of the ceremonies commemorating the outbreak of the First World War. It was an inspired choice for CoPs to present it as we approach the centenary of the conclusion of hostilities next November. Not only were we richly entertained but we were given much food for thought as we made our way home.
Photographs by Steve Beeston.