So Great a Crime

David Gooderson
D2 & Co in association with the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre

Elizabeth Counsell as Lady Ridgeway and Stuart McGugan as Sir Hector MacDonald Credit: StageShots (London)
James Woolley as Joe, Hayward Morse as Bob, Louie Bayliss as Nev and Philip York as HP Credit: StageShots (London)
Philip York as Hugh Phipps and Stuart McGugan as Sir Hector MacDonald Credit: StageShots (London)
Stuart McGugan as Sir Hector MacDonald and Hayward Morse as Lord Roberts Credit: StageShots (London)
Louie Bayliss as Rev Neville Bayliss, James Woolley as Bill Riley, Hayward Morse as First Tea Planter and Philip York as Hugh Phipps Credit: StageShots (London)

This is the story of “Fighting Mac”: Hector MacDonald, the son of a Scottish crofter who became a national hero.

Enlisting in the Gordon Highlanders when he was 17, he rose on sheer merit to become a Major General and a knight of the realm but committed suicide when, on his last posting as Commander in chief of British forces in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he was accused by members of the colony’s upper classes of homosexual involvement with local boys.

David Gooderson’s play is not about homosexuality or paedophilia, for he presents MacDonald as innocent of the accusations brought against him. It is more about the prejudice against someone who is not “one of us” and who is uncomfortable and unable to adapt to fit in with a different society.

It opens with a group of squaddies and their sergeant escorting MacDonald’s disguised coffin from Kings Cross to Edinburgh; these soldiers become the other Europeans in the play from colonial tea planters to Field Marshals.

In scenes that rapidly succeed each other, it outlines a career that took him from the Sudan to Afghanistan, where Lord Roberts recommended him for a commission, through the Second Boer War (where he was highly critical of British treatment of the women and children held in concentration camps) and back to Britain and a hero’s welcome, a post as ADC to the King and then on to India and, at his own request, Ceylon.

As actors morph into new characters, there is never any doubt as to whom they are playing at any moment. As the coffin party fills in and comments on parts of MacDonald’s history, they morph into other personalities, each clearly introduced.

The technique avoids this becoming a history lesson as they affectionately remember a much-admired soldier with a touch of salacious gossip to spice up the memories. Most of the so-called evidence for the case against MacDonald has disappeared, despite a Commission of Enquiry, and events in Ceylon as here reconstructed are based on conjecture.

It is possible Sir Hector may not have been quite so squeaky clean as here presented, but Gooderson is much more interested in the colonial toff’s intolerance of his soldierly bluntness, their lazy, laid-back self-indulgence set against his rigid army discipline. He is happy relaxing with a Sri Lankan family but tries to avoid attending social gatherings of the colonial elite, even church, unless his official duties demand it.

This is the colonial world seen almost entirely from Sir Hector’s perspective but, insufferable though they are, James Wooley as the Governor, Philip York as a posh planter and Louie Bayliss as a vicar who becomes a party to their vicious plotting have no doubts as to their superiority and bring a leavening of humour to portrayals that are probably only too like real life.

Elizabeth Counsell has a nicely differentiated double as the Governor’s intolerant lady and as Lady Hector, a wife unknown to the rest of the world until after her husband’s death, and Lyndam Gregory makes a strong contrast as Vikram da Saram the Singalese bank official who becomes Sir Hector’s friend.

There is a strong performance from Hayward Morse, slipping easily from squaddie Bob into Lord Robert’s red coat, a particularly interesting performance which embraces both his admiration for the soldier who is his protégé and his lack of understanding of a man from a different background.

Stuart McGugan is Sir Hector. The script, as well as his playing, puts us firmly on his side but McGugan also gives us the boiling over of his frustration as he viciously gets his own back on the toff Planters Rifles Volunteers on the parade ground—which is probably what triggers their plot against him. This is drill sergeant Hector, not at all what they expect of a KGB Major General.

David Gooderson directs his own play; despite the satirical edge he keeps performances believable and is greatly helped by the simplicity of Alex Marker’s design which ensures rapid transitions and supportive sound design from Max Pappenhelm.

So Great a Crime plays only on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesday matinées.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton