Venue: York Theatre Royal
Run: 5th – 27th October
Director: Damian Cruden
Writer: Susan Watkins
It’s an oddly contemporary play, The Guinea Pig Club. It follows doctor Archie McIndoe’s attempts to rebuild both the faces and the lives of WWII airmen horrifically burnt as they bailed from their aircraft. Immediately you are confronted with the awful parallels of today’s service men and women in Afghanistan, who face the constant fear of mutilation at the hands of IUDs and whose road to recovery was first trod by the ground breaking McIndoe.
Having said that, for a play with such emotional potential and immediacy the sum performance fell just flat. Although elements of the play were brilliant; the set was stark but gradually, as the airmen began to come back to life, so did their surroundings with slow additions of colour and increasing props; or McIndoe himself who struck the right edge of being an individual rather than a deified caricature lacking any flaws; there were parts the play might have done without.
First up was the singing. Every so often, usually after an emotionally fraught scene, a limber blonde would appear on stage and serenade (with an admittedly very nice voice) the audience. After a few numbers her appearance served only to increasingly fragment the central storyline, and side-track the audience from making any real emotional connection with the characters.
Secondly, a number of the airmen felt oddly cardboard – for a play supposed to be showing men rather than their injuries some of the British servicemen were hollow, and felt stereotypical in their attitudes and actions. The Canadian officer brought real warmth to his role, and a depth lacking in the traditional old boys school officers also portrayed.
Perhaps the most affected performance was by Alice, one of the young nurses on McIndoe’s ward. The young women of war were wrenched from their sheltered lives and exposed to the most unimaginable injuries and damage. Their resilience and courage, captured in Alice’s performance, was the most authentic depiction of the effects of war. The complexity of being both repulsed and attached to the men was the only layered relationship in the play.
In spite of this though, the moments of relief when the men nervously branched out into public social scenarios, like wheelbarrow racing in the garden and singing around the piano in the bar, were much better pitched. These scenes were also most faithful to the McIndoe’s mantra “what is a face without a man, a whole man”.
Ultimately, perhaps the real problem with a play like this is that the matter is so poignant, and so painful to fully imagine, that the bar is already set very, very high.