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Written by Steve Pratt
Two visionary and inspirational men from the world of medicine are at the heart of York Theatre Royal’s premiere of The Guinea Pig Club.
The play is based on the true story of plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, who turned from fashioning the noses of starlets to pioneer the most challenging procedures in surgical history, including the complete reconstruction of the human face. His patients were the savagely burned fighter pilots and aircrew of the Second World War – the Guinea Pig Club, as they came to be known.
The other medical man is Professor Sid Watkins, a world-renowned neurosurgeon who was at the forefront of Formula 1 safety for more than 30 years. He died last month but for several months had been working on the play, written by his author wife Susan Watkins, with director Damian Cruden.
Watkins drew inspiration in his work from McIndoe and was friends with some of the Guinea Pig Club members.
“I spent a long time with him and Susan so we were very clear where we were going with the play,” says Cruden.
“My job now in some respects is to get the play right – for Sid actually. He was very passionate about the story being told, about supporting it and making sure that it happened. It’s a real shame he doesn’t get to see it.”
The play came to him through panto regular Suzy Cooper, whose father was friends with Watkins. Susan Watkins had been working on a film screenplay about The Guinea Pig Club and when finance fell through, someone suggested turning it into a stage play.
“After various conversations with commercial producers, Sid asked Suzy if she knew of anybody who would look at it and give them some advice on what they should do,” says Cruden.
“Sid and Susan came in and I had a whole day with them, going through the text and just talking to them about its shift from film to stage and how that could be done. The project grew from there.
“Sid’s best friend at medical school, Sandy, was a guinea pig so that’s how their story is part of Sid’s world.”
Cruden sees that McIndoe and Watkins as having a lot in common. “Sid was a pioneering surgeon, a maverick who found institutions and red tape something to be fought against and who was passionate about the care of people; McIndoe was much the same.
“Sid was phenomenally inspirational and in many ways that symbiotic notion of McIndoe and Sid does exist in some way inside Susan’s writing in as much as they were both great men who took on the establishment and won.
“They were also phenomenally compassionate. They were involved in ground-breaking surgery. McIndoe operated and developed techniques that hadn’t been done before.”
Along with the physical reconstruction came the need to heal the injured men’s souls. Many couldn’t imagine they had a future. They’d written themselves off and had no notion of what their future could possibly hold.
“A huge part of the story is McIndoe’s journey into the unknown. With surgery you can see whether it’s working or not. It’s very clear, it’s a very physical process.
“How he cared and dealt with them emotionally as spiritual beings was a much more complicated journey, and he recognised that partly had to be made by the general public. So he was an evangelist about them having to change and didn’t pull his punches.
“He just went out and said look this is really straightforward, they are horrifically scarred. You have to see the man behind the mask, you’ve got to see him as a human being.
“He was also very blunt, that in order to give these men a sense of purpose, they needed a job, they needed money, they needed sex. If they have those three things they have the possibility of a future.”
Playing McIndoe in the production is former Coronation Street actor Graeme Hawley, fresh from playing Satan in York Mystery Plays 2012. Fiona Dolman, who plays DCI John Barnaby’s wife in Midsomer Murders, features as head nurse Sister O’Donnell.
Cruden sees the play’s themes as relevant to the problems society has dealing with servicemen who come back from war injured today. “In most cases we find it difficult to manage the physical and psychological scars,” he says.
“I was speaking to an ex-officer the other day who said, ‘the military don’t want sympathy, we want understanding’. You just have to accept that you’ve got to pay for going to war in so many ways. You just can’t walk away from the responsibility and McIndoe is clear that what happened after the First World War was not acceptable.
“So there was an understanding in the late 1930s that whatever happened at the end of Second World War it was going to have to be a home fit for heroes. But we ended up with a society that was imbalanced, full of anomalies and injustice.
“Still today in this country we struggle greatly with what it is to send lots of 17-year-old boys off to Afghanistan and then deal with what happens if you go down that road.”
Read the review on The Press website.