There can’t help but have been a sense of local pride in the Aylesbury area this summer. While the Olympic and Paralympic Games took place in the East End of London, the latter has its roots very firmly in this small town. In Stoke Mandeville Hospital to be precise, whose spinal injuries unit created the first Games for the Paralysed under the leadership of Doctor Ludwig Guttmann.
The BBC took a pass at telling the story of Guttmann and the birth of the Paralympics with Lucy Gannon’s The Best of Men (you can read a piece by Gannon about that production on the BBC Writersroom blog). Featuring a remarkable central performance by Eddie Marsan, it helped get the story of Guttmann out to a wide audience.
In contrast, Karen Simpson Productions’ telling of the story, with a script by Nicholas McInerny and directed by Charlotte Westenra, is intended to tell the story to much smaller audiences – after this weekend at the Waterside, it will tour to local communities for the next month. And while there’s an inevitable amount of overlap between the BBC’s story and this stage one, I have to admit that I found the theatrical retelling to be a far more involving and emotional take on Guttmann and his legacy.
Guttmann (Nicholas Chambers) is portrayed as a driven man, often difficult to get along with professionally, infuriatingly dismissive of policies and procedure, but ultimately respected by staff and patients, at the possible expense of a stable family life. Driven – and haunted – by visions of experiences in hospitals in Silesia and Breslau, Guttmann takes over the spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville and slowly begins turning it from a place where soldiers with spinal injuries were cared for until death into a centre which concentrates on rehabilitation.
It’s the use of sporting activities as part of that rehabilitation which led, of course, to competition between patients, then between hospitals, and on to between nations. But it’s the transformation of spirit that’s more important to this story, and how Guttmann’s belief that people with paralysis caused by spinal damage should not be written off – whether by the hospital board, or by the patients themselves.
Chambers’ stirring central performance is backed up by splendid performances from his four cast mates. Robert Bradley’s Quartermaster and Rosie Armstrong’s dual roles or ward matron and Else Guttmann provide stirring performances. But it’s the romance between patients Henry (Andy Dear) and Florence (Holly Ridley) that really lifts the spirits. According to the programme, this is Ridley’s first professional theatre role – on the evidence of this production, that’s going to be the start of a long theatrical CV.
The Incredible Doctor Guttmann will be touring village halls and schools until November 24. For locations and dates, visit karensimpsonproductions.co.uk