‘The Grim Reaper cannot wait for the good times to roll.’
NHS England and not NHS Scotland is examined in Stella Feehily’s agile new work, which is mildly or wildly reassuring depending on the state of your health and where you live. This May Hurt a Bit is still a jag of a play, needle sharp where it matters and good for you. It will also, with luck, get stuck into government.
There is no squirming away from the political point of Feehily’s writing or from Max Stafford-Clark’s expert direction. The National Health Service is sixty-six years old, is in a High Dependency Unit, and needs your support before it is wheeled off as a terminal case. Here is an acute and tender understatement of a critical condition.
The play begins deep in the vein, if you will, of Ken Loach’s new film, the documentary The Spirit of ’45 when in his words ‘generosity, mutual support and co-operation were the watch words of the age.’ Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health in the post-war Labour government, is on stage and brings the attention of the House to the extraordinary fact that ‘we are still able to do the most civilised thing in the world – put the welfare of the sick in front of every other consideration.’
That was in 1948, as indicated by the LED display. Move straight on to 2011 and then to the here and now but not before I, poor sap, thought that the medical staff were ‘serving’ customer/patient No.1948. Rather like those long waits in the East Coast advance booking hall at Edinburgh Waverley or, come to think of it, my time in A&E at the new ERI when a low-flying discus cracked my head.
The set of This May Hurt a Bit actually looks like an interior of the Old Royal before the PFI op. You cannot see it but there’s blood on the ceiling. Long and narrow gothic windows and grubby whitewashed brickwork and a screened treatment area centre stage with a disconcertingly large EXIT sign suspended above it. By scene 17, of 18, The Grim Reaper cannot wait for the good times to roll.
Nicholas James (66) is being treated for a prostate the size of a space hopper but has the good manners not to worry anyone but himself. His mother, Iris (91), suffers a fall and is admitted to the local District General for investigation. Fond but limited daughter Mariel is visiting from New York where all-American husband, Hank, is an orthopaedic surgeon. In Hank’s professional opinion – because you die in city hospitals – Iris should be treated privately where she’ll enjoy a lovely view of the Thames. Iris, bless her, swears (profanely) by NHS care, and refuses to move. Nicholas is with his mother all the way.
On the wards, or more accurately on the corridors, there is near bedlam. As well as Iris, Nurse Gina has to look after incontinent stroke patient Rev. John and dementing, bonkers, Dinah. Paramedics, porters, and police dispense black humour. There is a corpse in the screened cubicle, left.
Deadpan funny is rarely in remission but neither is the rolling political script. There is no positive narrative behind NHS reform, Prime Minister, so you just go out there and spiel away; and Feehily provides a wacky retinue – from within the cast of eight – of singing nurses, advisors, strategists, a board of directors, Churchill, a weather girl, and Maggie Thatcher on her perch. I have mentioned Death.
Iris is at the play’s selfless heart. Her absolute, principled, and dear refusal to leave NHS care means she is immune to what afflicts it. Peerless Stephanie Cole cannot be touched in the role. Similarly, Natalie Klamar as Nurse Gina from God knows where – possibly Poland, maybe Serbia – has an angelic part, made all the sweeter when she explodes in effing fury at the specious ‘Culture’ of shitty spending cuts.
It is a bit too easy, I think, to import Hank as the big bad US example – not one reference to French or German systems of social health insurance for instance – but that goes with the staked out territory of this continuing debate, which as Freehily palpably demonstrates gets far too close for comfort to the cynical truths of ‘Yes, Minister’.
This May Hurt a Bit has deft feel and touch all over it but it is also an invigorating shot in the arm for the campaign to keep the NHS safe and in public hands. Scotland, I propose, is reminded to keep its resistance up.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 9 April)
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