Reviews West End & Central Published 19 September 2014

Dr Scroggy’s War

Globe Theatre ⋄ 12th September - 10th October 2014

Identity crisis.

Tom Wicker

Together, writer Howard Brenton and director John Dove – reuniting after their success with Anne Boleyn in 2012 – make great use of the Globe’s space, embracing its chummy openness. In some productions, for example, the trademark direct address to the audience in the pit and the balcony can feel forced, with other cast members left hanging around in the background. But from a beautifully written and executed golf gag onwards, no dimension of the stage is wasted here.

But this pace and directorial polish can’t quite disguise the muddle at the heart of a play that, while often sharply funny and insightful, has a tendency to pick up and drop ideas without properly paying them off. Something’s arguably not quite right when the most gripping scene in a production about the horrors of the First World War is a standoff between Field Marshalls Douglas Haig and Sir John French.

Perhaps the biggest problem here is a form of identity crisis: in spite of the title, it’s never really clear exactly whose story Dr Scroggy’s War is actually telling. Is it that of real-life First World War army doctor Harold Gillies (nicknamed Dr Scroggy) and his pioneering plastic surgery techniques? Or is it that of British soldier Jack Twigg, who ends up in Gillies’ hospital after losing his nose and much of his jaw?

There’s no reason, of course, why it couldn’t be both. But after the golf scene, Gillies vanishes for most of the first act, which steps firmly into class satire, evoking – in the best way – Oh! What a Lovely War. ‘Temporary gentleman’ Twigg receives his first promotion on the ballroom floor, not the battlefield. Brenton is wittily astute about the tokenistic veneer of social mobility afforded to a bright young soldier by a silver-spoon officer class who treat him like a working-class pet.

Will Featherstone excels at conveying Twigg’s combination of naiveté and stubborn resolve to fight the war where he believes he should – at the front line rather than in an office. The punchy humour in scenes of British privates preparing to advance on the ‘Bosch’ is tinged with tragedy as the 1915 Battle of Loos approaches. In a quietly effective moment of fourth wall-breaking, Twigg reveals that he knows his fate – but that soldiers in a trench in France didn’t need a script for that.

After a powerful ending to the first half – a brilliant, tension-building drumbeat and a nightmarish imitation of thousands of flies buzzing over fresh corpses – the production abruptly shifts gear and focus. The thematic foundations laid down before the interval are largely dispensed with as we are re-introduced to James Garnon’s eccentric Gillies, who holds an oar while thinking and secretly sneaks alcohol to his patients while disguised as the Scottish ‘Dr Scroggy’.

From this point onwards the play begins to lose some of its impact, drifting into comi-tragic set-pieces that lack the seamlessness of what has gone before. There are still some deft switches between humour and darkness, but, crucially, the character of Gillies never transcends his quirks enough to cohere the play around him. Meanwhile, Twigg’s story – complete with a twist about his heritage that feels contrived – comes across as having been squeezed into the gaps.

The structural messiness of Dr Scroggy’s War is frustrating because it muffles much good stuff. The cast are uniformly strong (particularly Catherine Bailey as cynical socialite-cum-volunteer nurse Penelope Wedgewood) and the play is both perceptive and deeply empathetic in its exploration of wartime identity and the new, awful reality of battle when bullets replaced bayonets. While Gillies might be able to patch up the faces of the soldiers he treats, he can’t repair their minds.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

Dr Scroggy’s War Show Info

Directed by John Dove

Written by Howard Brenton

Cast includes Catherine Bailey, Sam Cox, Patrick Driver, Will Featherstone, James Garnon, Daisy Hughes, Joe Jameson, Tom Kanji, Christopher Logan, William Mannering, Holly Morgan, Rhiannon Oliver, Keith Ramsey, Paul Rider, Katy Stephens, Dickon Tyrrell, Patrick Holt and Joel Wood.




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