Guinea Pigs, The Space, Livestream Broadcast – Review

“A conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public.” — Mark Twain


If you could meet your 15-year-old-self, what would you say? Would your point of view be any different from theirs? Or perhaps the only deviation would be time has honed your views with greater clarity and nuance? Written by Elin Doyle and directed by Laura Kirman, Guinea Pigs is about a teenager whose father is connected to the British nuclear testing programme – its aftermath having major physical and emotional repercussions.

L-R: Coral O’Malley (Elin Doyle) with aunt Maureen (Caron Kehoe)

Bookended by events at a funeral, the play introduces Coral O’Malley (Elin Doyle) as an adult with her aunt Maureen (Caron Kehoe), as they remember their respective father/brother Gerry. Given her old diaries (which she thought she’s got rid of), Coral recalls the 1980s, during a pivotal time in her life when her family history and personal convictions became inextricably linked.

But before Coral’s introduction, we’re shown footage of “Operation Grapple”, the pseudonym for Britain’s hydrogen bomb programme between 1957-58. At the time, it was reported the testing programme was to put Britain on equal footing with the Soviet Union and United States as a nuclear power, and not be reliant on another nation for ‘protection’. British men who were conscripted under ‘National Service’ took part in the operation, but the real reason why they were present without protective clothing or measures would never be disclosed publicly… Roll on nearly 30 years, we meet Gerry (Jonny Emmett).

Gerry (Jonny Emmett) receiving very little sympathy from the DSS (Caron Kehoe)

Suffering from ‘unusual’ debilitating auto-immune disorders as a result of radiation exposure in the 1950s, Gerry finds his health has deteriorated to the point he can’t work anymore (at least in a physically-demanding capacity). Looking back at the ’80s, there were a number of hitherto unknown ailments that gained traction in the media, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/chronic fatigue syndrome), as well as HIV. By contrast, the symptoms that Gerry and his peers experienced were never acknowledged by the government or Ministry of Defence, making their fight all the harder for answers and an apology. It is perhaps no surprise they were confronted with a wall of silence, given how “shell-shock” during the First World War was dismissed by the powers-that-be as cowardice.

Intergenerational disgreements are as old as time itself, but in the case of Gerry and Coral, they are more politically in sync than most people. However, Coral doesn’t see it that way – looking only on the ‘sins’ of her father’s past. In this respect, their relationship mirrors that of Felix and Nicky Hitchinson in Our Friends In The North.

The play is also in many ways a ‘coming of age story’ for Coral. Not in terms of ‘first love’, but of a political awakening – being able to ‘connect the dots’ between herself, her family, society and the world. We also see Coral – through her own experiences and meeting with others – discover that ‘the future is female’. Not in some bullish Thatcherite, woman-acting-like-a-man way, but in terms of women – driven by their capacity to care – to protest and press for positive changes in society.

Coral receives a home visit from her concerned teacher

One of the things the play reminded me of, was how the Eighties was much more of a politically vocal time, with responses to domestic and global events permeating music, TV programmes and the Arts in general. There were just as many – if not more – pressing issues around the world (police brutality precipitating civil unrest, apartheid, AIDS, famine in Africa… the list goes on and on). But back then, instead of endless online petitions circulating routinely ignored, people from all walks of life took to the streets to march and be counted. So why is this less prevalent now? The past 10+ years have seen the right to protest eroded away, but the real reason – as Coral states, during a public speaking engagement – lies with the malaise of adulthood: apathy. “It’s just the way things are…”

The three actors totally inhabit their roles and one senses that for them, performing this play is more than an acting opportunity for them. Because of its semi-autobiographical nature, one imagines that for Doyle, this isn’t some whimsical trip down memory lane, but a reminder to everyone that the ‘rights’ we have to ‘the truth’, accountability, freedom from poverty, etc, can be taken away. They have to be fought for, every day, with vigilance.

Coral gets candid about the way of things at an inter-school public speaking engagement

If there is any justice, Guinea Pigs will be back on stage in the near future, as its message and themes are even more relevant now than they were 40 years ago.

On a side note, the eclectic choice of music for the play (such as from The Specials, The Stranglers, Thompson Twins, Aswad, The Smiths, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Communards) really capture the sounds of the decade and serve as another reminder of how adversity back then, led to diverse types of music ‘having something to say’.

© Michael Davis 2022

Guinea Pigs ran at The Space Arts Centre from 4th to 8th October and available online on demand until 22nd October.

Guinea Pigs Livestream


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