Friday, 26 September 2014

Theatre review: Doctor Scroggy's War

In among the patchy track record of new writing at Shakespeare's Globe, there's a few writers who get it just right. Howard Brenton has a better hit rate than most, returning for a third premiere at the venue after the huge success of his Anne Boleyn. The bloody theme of this summer's season is inspired by the centenary of World War I, and Brenton's Doctor Scroggy's War is the only play to deal with it directly. It follows Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone,) a London lad who's the first of his family to go to Oxford, where he makes aristocratic friends like Lord Ralph Dulwich (Joe Jameson.) The two become officers together, but Jack's knowledge of military history and tactical mind see him quickly promoted above his upper-class friend; although what seems like him having ideas above him station gets him into trouble with Field-Marshall French (Paul Rider.)

But Jack's real war starts after he's horrifically injured, and sent to a hospital specialising in facial disfigurement. Doctor Harold Gillies, a pioneering plastic surgeon, has a very individual approach to patient care.

Gillies, who spends the days performing intricate reconstructive surgery, spends the nights dressing as an absurd Scotsman called Doctor Scroggy, who cheers the wounded soldiers up with dirty jokes and brings them illicit booze. It's the kind of scene-chewing role that's made for Globe regular James Garnon, who has a whale of a time but maintains a palpable melancholy at the fact that he's patching the men up to be sent back to the front - a recurring theme in many of this year's centenary shows - and at those men, like Jack, whose spirits he just can't lift.

Doctor Scroggy's War is Featherston'e show though, and he has the unenviable job of carrying the play while his face is completely bandaged up for the whole second act. After being underused in Julius Caesar, there's a couple of great supporting roles for Katy Stephens here, first as Jack's mother, wonderfully warm and flirtatious, and later quietly heartbreaking. She also doubles as a no-nonsense Queen Mary on a visit to the hospital. There's strong support from the whole cast, including Catherine Bailey as an upper-class friend of Ralph's who falls for Jack and goes through a war of her own.

Brenton, teaming up again with director John Dove, continues to find the lesser-known, fascinating corners of history and his use of characters occasionally breaking out of the scene to talk to the audience shows a confident, relaxed use of the Globe's space. The play's darkness comes not only from the war but also from Gillies/Scroggy's inability to penetrate Jack's depression and single-minded determination to be some kind of hero; but his own light touch and energy stop this from being an overwhelmingly sad evening, its mourning for the pointless loss of life countered with the celebration of men like Gillies who never tired of trying to make life worth living again.

Doctor Scroggy's War by Howard Brenton is booking in repertory until the 10th of October at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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