This review was first featured on Exeunt Magazine on 8th April 2014.
The NHS is unwell. Essential systems are frail and aging: having once been cured with a program of digitisation, top-down management and a slick face-lift, it now finds itself disjointed, dislocated and whimpering. Since its stormy birth in 1948, the NHS has been a bastion of good old-fashioned post-war Britishness, a symbol of our enduring commitment to supporting those who find themselves at their lowest ebb. It is impossible for most of us born into the world of ‘free at the point of contact’ healthcare to imagine any other way of life. But as the NHS moves towards its 70th birthday, its chances of making a full recovery are being called in to question; is it time for an early retirement?
Stella Feehily springs to the defence of our aging beloved against the aggressive agenda of privatisation in this latest offering from Out of Joint, produced in conjunction with the Octagon in Bolton. A traditional family story lies at the play’s heart, and their varying experiences and conflicting opinions of the NHS provide Feehily with a platform from which to extoll its virtues and analyse its weaknesses.
Widowed and recently made redundant, the icing on middle-aged Nicholas’ misery cake comes with a diagnosis of a chronic prostate condition. Accused by his snooty, pro-private healthcare sister of being a bleeding-heart liberal, he finds himself conflicted by wanting to defend the health service whose ideology he reveres, but whose long waiting-lists and administrative chaos are leaving him floundering and anxious. When his dignified and wise 90 year-old mother Iris suffers a fall and ends up in a ward at the troubled Harrington hospital, a sharp eye is cast on the pressures of a skewed staff to patient ratio. The second act examines the heart-breaking plight of both the overburdened, harassed, and distressed nurse who knows she is spreading her time dangerously thinly, and those in her care who struggle to maintain their humanity and dignity.
Overall, this play feels more like a political rant than a passionate scream. It is a collection of expertly portrayed, tightly controlled voices and vignettes rather than fully formed warts-and-all characters. Everyone can recognise the generic overworked-yet-caring eastern European nurse or the wily policy-crafting politician, but this technique overlooks the theatrical value of guts, flaws and flesh in a character. Relationships between the central characters are functional and sanitised, with whole scenes crafted purely to drive the political message forward.
While the central family story is suffused with a degree of pathos and empathy, other aspects of the play fall short of rousing the anger necessary to effect change.This is particularly true of the more preachy components of the play, such as the interjectory mini-lecture on the pitfalls of Private Finance Initiatives or the weather forecast charting the spread of hospital closures. Though informative and impressively Brechtian in the distance these scenes created between spectator and spectacle, they would have worked better if they had been balanced with a plot containing real human characters, rather than ‘types’.
That being said, the large cast portray an assortment of different characters with expertise and ease. They work hard to ensure the characters do not become caricatures, unless explicitly called for by the script (surrealist cameos from Sir Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan cannot be faulted for their technical precision and impact, though they do feel dramaturgically heavy-footed). All performances are slick, well-conceived and thoroughly believable, no doubt honed by the masterful touch of Max Stafford-Clark. Dynamism flows through the piece, and interjections of song and movement are a joy to watch. The production is well-paced and abounds with energy.
It is difficult not to feel engaged by This May Hurt A Bit; it is enrapturing, with its creative hospital-inspired set and vibrant verbatim soundscape. There is, however, an underlying feeling that the play itself might be preaching to the already converted – particularly in Scotland, where you find twice as many pandas as Tory MPs, and little persuasion is needed to elicit an audience to condemn any attack on the welfare state.
The play’s message is potent and prescient, so it is a shame that the text favours didacticism over other theatrical considerations (particularly characterisation, which would have allowed the production to disseminate the message by appealing to the heart as well as the head). However, if the goal was to set up the NHS as a jewel in the crown of our democracy, and communicate the message that it needs protection in a time of indiscriminate austerity, then this brilliantly directed and well-performed production certainly succeeds.