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Written by Tim Walker
Rather in the way that Mohammed looked upon his mountain, Londoners tend to take the view that theatre, if it is any good, will, sooner or later, come to them. The corollary, of course, is that everything playing in the capital is touched by greatness. Suffice it to say that a show has opened in the city called Loserville.
A few days earlier, and without fanfare, the curtain went up in York onThe Guinea Pig Club. It’s a new play by Susan Watkins about the pioneering plastic surgery and psychological support that the New Zealand-born physician Sir Archibald McIndoe gave to the RAF airmen who were horrifically injured during the war.
Damian Cruden’s production glows with fine, old-fashioned virtues: the story of the so-called “guinea pigs” is compelling, but also educational; it celebrates our country and the human spirit; and the members of the ensemble, while they may not be big star names, have, for the most part, good, solid stage backgrounds and are eminently believable in their roles.
It has the virtue, too, of a writer who is passionate about her subject, and with good reason. Sid Watkins – Susan’s husband, who died a couple of weeks after the play started rehearsals – was the neurosurgeon whose work with Formula One racing built upon what Sir Archibald had begun.
The story focuses on Rusty Rushford who, after being virtually incinerated when his Spitfire is shot down, is admitted to McIndoe’s Ward Three at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex.
Sick beds can be the making of actors – one thinks of Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective, Jane Lapotaire in Shadowlands and even Ronald Reagan in Kings Row – and Stefano Braschi, after years of spear-carrying at the National and the Donmar, gives Rushford everything he's got. It is a mesmerising performance of raw, heart-rending intensity.
Little, if any, attempt is made to anaesthetise the audience to what the guinea pigs had to go through, and Rushford’s screams of pain, as McIndoe sets about excising the burnt skin from his fingers, have had some punters fainting and others fleeing in horror.
“If you recoil,” McIndoe says, admonishingly, “you leave a permanent scar upon their souls – why should that be so difficult to understand?”
Governments have always been inclined to hide away the casualties of war, and ordinary people, too, haven’t always been willing to acknowledge what they owe to these individuals. It is telling, perhaps, that this production has received scant attention in the national press.
Still, the punters who stay the course are rewarded as Braschi achieves with Graeme Hawley, as his bluff, Antipodean surgeon, the same sort of chemistry that Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush managed in The King’s Speech. In essence, this is also the story of a broken little boy being helped back on to his feet by a kind, if unconventional, tutor.
There are some deft touches of humour, evocative period songs from Sarah Applewood as Frances Day – after The Singing Detective and Kiss of the Spider Woman, it is something of a theatrical convention that where there is morphine, there has to be music – and an affecting love interest for Rushford in the beguiling form of Anna O’Grady’s Nurse Harwood.
“Why must you always reduce life to how you look?” she asks her doting, but desperately self-conscious patient. The question remains to this day a pertinent one for society at large, and perhaps the West End in particular.
If this gutsy, real and immensely thought-provoking production does eventually transfer to the capital – and, goodness knows, it deserves to – one can only hope that, just for once, it won’t be recast with the usual vacuous, superficial celebrity actors in the principal roles.
The irony, in all the circumstances, would be too much to bear.
This article also appeared in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph