Theatre Review: The Guinea Pig Club - York Theatre Royal ✭✭✭

The Guinea Pig Club
York Theatre Royal

Films and plays of the heroics during World War II are not uncommon, however these normally centre on lantern jawed, fly-boys battling against the odds as well as the Germans. In Susan WatkinsThe Guinea Pig Club, currently at the York Theatre Royal, the focus is shifted to the ones we don’t usually see, the fallen heroes whose scars are not just skin deep.

Archibald McIndoe, renowned cosmetic surgeon, takes on more than a bit of facial reconstruction as he battles to fix the scars, both external and internal, of extremely disfigured RAF pilots and crew. As they fell from the sky, the results of their disfigurement also saw them fall out of society. McIndoe knew that a new nose would not simply be enough to help these young men; he would have to rebuild their confidence too and change the opinions of an image conscious world at the same time.

Photo by Karl Andre Photography
The power of this true story is immense and you can’t help but examine yourself as you watch. Whilst the action is set well over 60 years ago, many of the themes exist in today’s world. These pilots were the superstar pin ups of their days. Men wanted to be them, women wanted to be with them. But what happened when they lost their looks? The same applies today; we are still a society that judges by appearances and celebrates what we are told is beauty.

As McIndoe gradually restores noses, eyebrows and lips he also restores pride and self worth. But not in any orthodox manner – this is a hospital ward that features a piano and has beer on tap!

Graeme Hawley, last seen in York in the city’s Mystery Plays, swaps playing Satan for a character playing God – though it is fair to say McIndoe was no saint. This wonderfully rounded performance highlights the man’s flaws and failures as well as his immense character and drive to do more than just a cosmetic patch up for his patients. With blunt humour and a dash of charm, Hawley’s McIndoe has those in his care, his staff, and the audience warming to him and his slightly eccentric approach.

But this is a story more about the strength of the young men battling back to the people they once were before tragedy struck. Their courage – encouraged by McIndoe – should never be forgotten. These self-named Guinea Pigs helped to lead the way and challenge public perception and convention. Director Damian Cruden draws great performances from all the company – from convalescents to carers – which also features Fiona Dolman, Jack Ashton, Anna O’Grady, Stefano Braschi, Tim Lewis, Alex Braatz, Rollo Skinner and George Ure.

However some of the power of this production is lost through the rather long running time. Weighing in at 2hrs 50mins (including interval), there are times when the pace slows. Between each scene we are serenaded by Francis Day (played by Sarah Applewood), a forces sweetheart, fantasy figure. Whilst at first these musical interludes create a stark contrast between the glamorous propaganda portrayal of war and the grim reality, these sections begin to slow down the narrative – not that this is the fault of Applewood whose voice is fantastically rich and sumptuous.

Maybe a touch of glamour is needed though, especially against Joanna Scotcher’s grey military hospital ward set, but I feel that a little work under the surgeon’s knife may be required to tighten things up a little. Should this be the case and 10 or so minutes were lost from each act, I would happily supply a further star to add to the 3 I have given as it stands.

This one complaint aside, this is a very well produced show that takes audiences through a range of emotions but will ultimately have them looking in the mirror and asking questions on how we view people on the way that they look. History teaches us lessons that will help us in the future. Let’s hope we learn this one.

The Guinea Pig continues at York Theatre Royal until 27th October 2012.

3 stars out of 5 ✭✭✭

Review by James Eaglesfield