We chat to former Coronation Street baddie GRAEME HAWLEY who will be in York Theatre Royal's THE GUINEA PIG CLUB

As we sit in the foyer of York Theatre Royal, rain streams down its glass front. This is, however, familiar territory for former Coronation Street baddie Graeme Hawley who is taking a break from rehearsals for the theatre’s production of Susan Watkins' The Guinea Pig Club.

Back in August, Hawley was taking centre stage as Satan in the open air surroundings of the Yorkshire Museum Gardens in the York Mystery Plays 2012 where he and the rest of the brave cast battled against weather of almost biblical proportions. At least this time will see him appear in an auditorium with a roof:
“Yes it will be nice to try and stay dry. It clearly must be my fault. It always seems to rain when I’m in York but then it was never sunny in Coventry (Graeme’s home-town) either and it was certainly never sunny in Manchester. “

Graeme Hawley at read through of script
But despite the weather, he’s glad to be back in York.
“I love York so it’s brilliant to be back. Literally every day I’m bumping in to people from the Mysteries or I bump in to somebody who came to see them and that’s lovely. It really feels like I’ve become a part of this city; when you’ve had a part in a project that is so special to this city it does feel like there has been a level of acceptance and welcoming you in to the community.”

The York Mystery Plays 2012 was a huge project, involving over 1,000 volunteers, with just two professional actors leading the mainly community cast. It was an experience that Hawley only speaks highly of:
“I had an incredible time working on it. It turned out to be an amazing experience, which I always thought it would be. It was wonderful. Something I was really proud to be a part of.
We did what we wanted to do in terms of so many people came to see it but also everybody who was involved in it, the whole community cast, it was very much about what they could get out of it as well. I think that everyone had a wonderful experience. ”

Having spent 4 years on and off in Coronation Street as the duplicitous John Stape, Graeme has got used to attention from the public but in York things have taken a bit of a change:
“I’ve had 5 years of getting John Stape shouted at me down the street, and now I wouldn’t say it is all Satan but it is kind of 50/50 in York. Maybe we’ll add Archibald McIndoe (his character in The Guinea Pig Club) to that by the end of October.”

Graeme Hawley at read through of The Guinea Pig Club
So with York audiences familiar with him in the less than savoury roles of a murderer and Satan, will he be continuing to cultivate his reputation for playing characters you wouldn’t want to take home to meet your parents?
“It’s time to try and blow that away a little bit. Archibald McIndoe is a completely different person in character from either of those two people. I wouldn’t go as far to say that he was some wonderful human being as he’s got his faults but his story is an incredible story.
McIndoe was a cosmetic surgeon, asked at the beginning of the Second World War to set up a burns unit to treat aircraft pilots who had been badly burned during raids. Initially he was doing incredibly pioneering work in actually putting their faces back together – rebuilding noses,  mouths and faces and helping people to become mobile again. What he discovered through that was that that wasn’t enough. That it wouldn’t be enough to just repair their noses; that wouldn’t give these young men their lives back. What he had to do was work out a way to bring them out of their depression.
A lot of these young men were suicidal when they came in to the unit. Young men who thought they had their lives before them, they were the elite, they were spitfire pilots and then all of a sudden they felt their lives were over because their face had been taken away from them. He set about trying to rebuild their confidence and rebuild their lives and to prove to them that their face was not the most important thing about them. They still had a life to live and they still had a use within society.  And then beyond that trying to get society to accept those young men and see beyond their faces.
He really took that upon himself to make that happen. He defied a lot of the rules that were around in medicine and hospitals at the time, and a lot of the rules that were around within the RAF. In some ways was quite scornful of the military and certainly a lot of the procedures that were in place. He brought beer in to the hospital ward and encouraged them to wear their uniforms to make them feel useful.  And then took them out to the pubs and to the dance halls and forced people to confront them.
He was incredibly successful and from that these young men did rebuild their lives and they formed The Guinea Pig Club which survives even to this day and up until 2003 still met every single year to keep up that camaraderie going and to toast Archibald McIndoe who gave them their futures back really.”

It is clear that Hawley has done his research but how does playing a real character from recent history change how he approaches the piece as an actor? Does it place extra responsibility on his shoulders or place constraints on his performance?
“Not necessarily constraints. I spent a lot of time early on reading up on Archibald McIndoe and learning as much as you can about him and obviously there so much information within the play about him as well . Then, after a while, you have to put that to bed and go ‘Ok that’s the information I’ve got, now I’ve got to create a character for the stage that will be interesting for people to watch and take them through that story’. It’s very different but ultimately it always comes down to the same thing which is telling a story whether it’s a fictional character or whether it’s the devil or whatever. Ultimately it’s about telling the story of that character.”

The cast of The Guinea Pig Club
And what a story that is set to be – and one that strikes a chord following the recent sporting events in London:
“I don’t think its any coincidence that the play is being staged so soon after the Paralympics – there are definite parallels there. I am sure plenty of people will have seen Best Of Men, the drama about the hospital that was in Stoke Mandeville which is basically where the Paralympics started. McIndoe’s work was going on in East Grinstead at the same time so there are lots of parallels with that. The major message of the play is that a human being is not just a face, a human being is what’s going on inside their soul and that people have to learn to look beyond that face to find the real person.

So what can audiences expect then?
“A real mixture. There’s some real harrowing elements to it and some real shocking truths to be looked at about what these young men went through and the way some people viewed them in general. But also there’s a lot of humour within the play and a tremendous amount of hope as well. I think people should come out of it feeling very inspired by the human spirit really and by what people can achieve if they don’t take no for an answer. And that actually human beings are maybe better in their souls than we sometimes give them credit for. Its going to be a very up lifting experience.”

The Guinea Pig Club can be seen at York Theatre Royal between 5 – 27 October 2012.  
Box Office 01904 623568.

Interview by James Eaglesfield