Between 1952 and 1965, over 22,000 British servicemen, many of them on National Service, were shipped to remote locations in the Pacific Ocean to participate in, and clear up after, nuclear tests. Dressed only in shirt sleeves, with no protective equipment, these “guinea pigs” were made to witness nuclear detonations in the Pacific, and went on to experience disproportionate levels of mental and physical illness as a result. 70 years later, these veterans and their families have still received no acknowledgment or apology from the UK government for their trauma or the irreparable damage caused.
The 70th anniversary of the tests is marked with a new play by Elin Doyle, whose father Mike became a test veteran when he was only 19, and campaigned for justice until his death at the age of 67. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece that takes the writer’s memories of growing up with her dad and transfers them to a fictional family. Coral (played by Doyle) is a teenager in the 1980s, who’s just beginning to have a voice and opinions of her own. She’s torn between love and concern for her vulnerable dad Gerry (Jonny Emmett) and horrified shame over his participation in the development of such a powerful weapon. A typical teenager, Coral thinks she knows best about everything, including things she doesn’t really understand yet, and much of the play sees father and daughter going head to head as they try to work through their differences of opinion and ultimately learn to meet somewhere in the middle.
There’s a lot to appreciate in Guinea Pigs. The central inspiration is a topic that’s been deliberately covered up and will therefore be news to many audience members, and Doyle’s script both asks challenging questions about the rights and wrongs of nuclear armament, and draws neat parallels between the UK’s political situation in the 1980s and in 2022 (in summary, not much has changed). The performances in general are strong; Elin Doyle makes a very convincing stroppy teenager, and Jonny Emmett is instantly sympathetic as her long-suffering dad, while Caron Kehoe slips seamlessly between multiple roles – most notably as Auntie Maureen, Gerry’s sister who just wants to keep the peace. Director Laura Kirman keeps a good pace throughout, with smooth scene changes accompanied by an infectious 80s soundtrack, and there’s some nice work from lighting designer Catherine van der Hoven at two key dramatic moments.
Where the play could be improved is in its dialogue, which is often exposition-heavy and begins to get repetitive; though it’s arguably realistic to show a dad and his teenage daughter having the same argument again and again, it ultimately does little to further the narrative after the first time. This also means that other plot points with greater dramatic potential – Gerry’s suspicion that their phone are being tapped, or the sudden death of a scientist sympathetic to their cause, for instance – are left underdeveloped. That said, Gerry’s description of the nuclear blast is very powerfully written and delivered, with some haunting imagery that I won’t forget any time soon, and a speech given by Coral at a school event near the end of the play makes an eloquent point about the importance of speaking up and using our voices for good.
In short, there’s a huge amount of potential in this very personal story, and with some tightening and perhaps a slight refocusing of the script, Elin Doyle has the makings of a very important and eye-opening piece of theatre.
Guinea Pigs continues at The Space until 8th October.