Doctor Scroggy’s War
Doctor Scroggy is the midnight manifestation of Dr Harold Delf Gillies, pioneer of plastic surgery, bringing liberating riot to the rigid discipline of a British military hospital.
He sets out to restore soldiers' hearts and minds just as his alter ego works to repair their faces. But that is a long way into Howard Brenton’s World War One story, commissioned by the Globe to mark the conflict’s centenary.
In a play that is closely based on fact, it is real-life maverick Gillies whom we see first, driving a golf ball straight into the audience, but the other main protagonist is fictional: Jack Twigg, a young man from the lower middle classes whose father is a London ship’s chandler.
A clever boy who played out historic battles with toy soldiers, he won a scholarship to Oxford. He was befriended there by fellow student Lord Ralph Dulwich. We meet them both as volunteer cavalry officers paying a visit to Jack’s embarrassed parents before joining a party given by the big brass at the Ritz.
Patriotism, class, military mismanagement, courage and carnage are all in what follows as Twigg scores with a society beauty, gains promotion to the staff of Field Marshal French, then goes forward to the frontline. At last seeing action at the Battle of Loos, he falls on his very first foray. As he leads his men over the top, his face is half shot off.
Brenton is not delivering anything particularly new—we’ve have been exposing the horrors of WW1 for a long time now (though I had not realised that Gillies encouraged VAD nurses to look out for potential guinea-pigs for his still-experimental surgery). Centenary shows are everywhere, but this embraces more than most.
We may have seen the comic scene of gold braid Anglo-French linguistic confusion, but Brenton presents Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig more fairly and Paul Rider and Sam Cox play them free of caricature and, in hindsight at least, French has an honest awareness.
James Garnon gives a powerful performance as New Zealander Gillies. As the action moves to his Sidcup hospital, we see his arrogance matched by compassion, although, driven by the development of surgical technique, he recognizes the mental damage as well as the physical and resists the sending back of his patients to the trenches—though that is what Jack Twigg sees as his duty.
Will Featherstone captures the social awkwardness of Twigg, his confused exasperation when not allowed to deliver important information. He makes believable his belief in patriotic duty, despite the arguments of his lover, the Hon. Penelope Wedgewood, and parents, played by Patrick Driver and Katy Stephens, who is also a graciously relaxed Queen Mary.
There is little time for character development in the brief time we spend with any of them but Brenton shows the effects of war experience on people. Jo Jameson’s Lord Ralph forms a new view of the lower orders and the Hon Penelope, eyes opened by her experiences with the VAD and her passion for Jack, joins those demonstrating against the war and Catherine Bailey makes this seem a real conversion, not just a tidy piece of plotting.
With its graphic descriptions of injuries and operations (though bandages prevent us seeing them) and its candid presentation of military thinking, Brenton reminds us of the horror but manages to do so with a regular ripple of humour. This doesn’t detract from the points that he is making but rather emphasises the need to address the questions that he raises in this stimulating play, which is simply but finely staged by John Dove.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton