They say write what you know, so let’s hope James Bridie was delving into some fiction when he wrote Dr Angelus. Bridie, a GP turned playwright, and without who we wouldn’t have a little thing called the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is seldom seen these days. Indeed the last time Angelus was in town WWII had only been finished two years, so I approached this outing at the Finborough Theatre, intrigued as to the cause of its revival. This production has quality in abundance, and though I may question Bridie’s text, the weighty themes are hot button topics today.
1920, Glasgow, and Cyril Angelus (David Rintoul) conducts his practice from his home, with partner George Johnson (Alex Bhat), a young man from England who desperately needs to get a sense of humour. He also needs to pick better colleagues as it turns out Cyril is not such a ‘good doctor’ after all – firstly his Mother-In-Law passes away under his care, now wife Margaret (Vivien Heilbron) is dangerously ill. Murder is in the air, and Johnson has to decide whether or not to continue putting faith in his mentor, or shop him to the police.
George’s dilemma is really interesting – pitting his own morals against the Hippocratic Oath feels remarkably relevant. Health workers today come under so much scrutiny, it’s cheering to see a play addressing the public/professional persona, and the difficult choices that come with such responsibility (albeit on a more theatrical level). This revival earns its stripes on that alone, though perhaps the script isn’t as polished as it could be. The story feels slightly signposted, meaning character decisions play as dramatic irony, making it difficult to empathise. I’m also unhappy with the treatment of the female characters, who exist mostly as plot devices or romantic interests; not that these tropes can’t be handled with sensitivity or depth, they’re just not here. However, there are some funny moments. George is really made to work hard against the slightly buffoonish nature of this world, and a nice soliloquy from Cyril at the resolution goes some way to explaining his motives, though not entirely.
We also enjoy some really excellent performances from a hardworking cast. Rintoul brings an enjoyable gravitas to our titular character, making him fun but kind of dangerous. Bhat’s George is wonderfully dry and dull, without falling flat. Malcom Rennie is weirdly offbeat in a dual role, which works particularly well for his otherworldly Inspector. Despite their underwritten roles, all the women are superb – Heilbron wrings a lot of emotion from her limited stage time, and Lesley Harcourt as patient Irene is humorous on top, sympathetic underneath. Rosalind McAndrew channels so much passive energy and sarcasm into housemaid Janet, she becomes a very memorable addition.
Director Jenny Ogilvie does a fine job, despite the constraints of the text. I especially like her use of lighting and sound to highlight key plot moments, such as George signing a death warrant. Also look out for a genuinely effective nightmare sequence that goes for creepy instead of terrifying and pulls it off. There’s an almost surreal quality, which gives Angelus a bit more pep, bit more punch, without going overboard. The only negative is that everything seems a little under-rehearsed. There are a few line stumbles, and on the night I saw it one pivotal scene had to be restarted a couple of times. Hey it’s live, and it happens.
Relevance can count for a lot, and Dr Angelus certainly brings that to the table, despite a script that’s not always working in its favour. Ogilvie has brought some terrific performances from a great cast, and the production is a worthy showcase of every creative involved. You should make the trip, it’s the opportune time to see a show of this nature.
Dr Angelus is playing the Finborough Theatre til December 20.
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli