Friday, 2 December 2016
Review Dr Angelus
by James Bridie
Set in 1919, but written 28 years later, Dr Angelus is a comedy thriller about a Glasgow family doctor with murder in mind.
Originally conceived by James Bridie (the pen name for doctor turned playwright and screenwriter Osborne Henry Mavor) as a vehicle for character actor Alastair Sim and Sim's protégé George Cole, it was a big success and was even recorded the following year for the BBC.
Based on the real-life 19th century case of Dr Edward William Pritchard, but updated in the play, Dr Angelus (a suitably flamboyant and sinisterly humorous David Rintoul) has just taken on a new English junior partner, George Johnson (Alex Bhat in a nicely-judged performance).
While George is grateful for the partnership, there are niggles, shared by a seductive lady patient in a seemingly unhappy marriage, Mrs Corcoran (Lesley Harcourt) whose businessman husband has had dealings wih Dr Angelus over share dealing and insurance policies.
Nevertheless, George, eager to make a success in his first position as a general practitioner suppresses any disquiet he has about the plain weird behavour of the senior partner.
However he still finds himself embroiled in suspicious circumstances when Angelus's off-stage mother-in-law and then his wife (Vivien Heilbron) die in quick succession and, in a Dr Shipman-like twist, Dr Angelus asks the young medic to sign the death certificates.
A psychological thriller, Dr Angelus is as much about the mentality of a medical profession built in hierarchy and, in the case of general practitioners, where money was usually needed to buy into a practice
The consultant Sir Gregory Butt and the police inspector McIvor (Malcolm Rennie playing both roles) only serve to underline the oddity of a self-regulating profession and the curious calculations of a constabulary when it comes to medical malfeasance.
We found it interesting that this beautifully-constructed play was written on the cusp of the introduction of the National Health Service in the year a separate National Health Service (NHS) bill was passed for Scotland. Dr Angelus himself, we learn in passing, had refused to join the previous government National Health insurance scheme (covering mostly working men and excluding married women).
Set the year after the First World War's end, it's also reasonable to assume Johnson may have served in the armed forces. So the play seems deliberately positioned to echo the position of 1947 ex-soldier-doctors and welcome the National Health Service with the Secretary of State taking over ownership of medical records and giving a degree of supervision over GP practices.
At the same time, this is an enjoyable old (post) war horse - including a deliciously duplicitous serving maid cum lover (Rosalind McAndrew) - with some strange, fascinating twists and a kind of social conscience contrasting the explicitly explained help given to the young doctor and the implicit fate of the servant.
Despite the elements of Gaslight-style melodrama, Dr Angelus seems ripe to be considered as a predecessor to some of the major Ealing Comedies. Not least for the overblown character of Dr Angelus himself and the identification with issues about the welfare state consensus. Jenny Ogilvie's production perhaps could do with a little more pep and confidence in the first act, but it's an amber/green light for a solid revival of an interesting play.