During WWII, fighter pilots would sit directly behind the main fuel tank of their planes, if the tank was hit by enemy fire it would explode directly into the pilot’s face resulting in an unprecedented volume of injuries; there were only four plastic surgeons in the UK at the time, changes would have to be made.
Susan Watkins has written The Guinea Pig Club with such a deep understanding of the subject. The play is dedicated to her late husband Professor Sid Watkins, a prominent neuro-surgeon who continued the innovative life- saving surgery pioneered by Archibald McIndoe in WWII. Her personal insight of the surgeon’s ethic to treat the whole person not just his injuries give the play a deep sense of compassion.
The play is set in Ward III at East Grinstead Hospital. It begins with Archibald McIndoe, portrayed brilliantly by Graeme Hawley whose tremendous acting and excellent New Zealand accent made the role feel so real. I was totally swept along by the passion portrayed and the total belief in McIndoe’s unorthodox ethic.
Archibald McIndoe was a civilian plastic surgeon with scant respect for hospital or military hierarchy. His talents were both technical and philosophical; “For what good is a face without a man – a whole man? Ward III was unique in this philosophy, with no place for military rank; a corporal could be in the next bed to a flight lieutenant. There was a beer keg for the patients to help themselves, an unorthodox ploy to keep them hydrated.
Some of the men required up to 80 operations so treatment was a lengthy procedure. The arduous programme of each man’s treatment relied on healing them mentally as well as physically; they became reliant on McIndoe for his encouragement and constant support to give them hope for their futures. The experimental nature of McIndoe’s surgery and post –operative care created a special, extra bond resulting in the formation of The Guinea Pig Club. The real life guinea pigs would have an annual get-together where they would dress up, have entertainment and support sessions, eventually it had over six hundred members.
The play is a masterpiece; the make- up is truly amazing; Rusty (Stefano Braschi) has a new nose grafted on from living tissue still attached to another part of his body, his nickname by the other patients being Heffalump! His and Mike’s (Al Braatz) burnt, deformed hands look incredible.
The play is interspersed throughout with songs performed by Sarah Applewood playing the part of Frances Day, Britain’s original blonde bombshell, this country’s first stage and screen sex symbol. She was cleverly portrayed as the patients ‘live’ pin-up.
I spent most of the performance feeling sick to the pit of my stomach! The human cost of war tends to exist to most of us as a distant headline or news story. York Theatre Royal has succeeded in delivering a true masterpiece of thought provoking theatre; the audience are starkly shown the personal effect war has on its injured. Though harrowing at times the play has many laugh out loud moments and its feel-good factor is tremendous. I genuinely saw the characters portrayed within the bandaged faces. I feel privileged to have witnessed this profoundly moving story. The standing ovation at the end was well deserved by all.