Sick – King’s Head Theatre, London

Writer: Shey Hargreaves

Director: Molly Naylor

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

One of the publishing successes of 2018’s This is Going to Hurt, doctor-turned-performer Adam Kay’s memoir of working on the frontlines of the NHS. The winning combination of humour and the devastating effects of the demands placed on those working on in the Health Service resulted in a compelling read, and it is little wonder it is currently being adapted into a TV series.

Shey Hargreaves’ storytelling monologue has a similar shape to Kay’s work. In her case, she was not a doctor, but a receptionist at an Emergency Admissions Unit. And while that may seem like a comparatively low-stakes NHS role to play, it affords Hargreaves the opportunity to observe many of the characters, from patients to doctors and nurses, that make the National Health Service unique.

Some of these observations work: most notably, Hargreaves conjures up an image of the EAU’s senior consultant, a Scottish Sikh with a penchant for colourful turbans and a wry attitude to the government’s attitude to NHS targets, which leaps out fully-formed. Many of her other characters are less well-served, though, and whenever they resurface during her monologue it takes a while to remember which is which.

Likewise, many of Hargreaves’s anecdotes individually lack bite, raising maybe a chuckle or a nod of recognition but little else. There is certainly meat to be found within her story, but so often one finds that what could be an interesting topic for exploration just peters out.

Interspersing work tales with her home life, Hargreaves does effectively evoke the crushing feeling of exhaustion that a life in the NHS can provide, and the devastating effects it can have on a relationship. In Hargreaves’s case, her personal life is complicated as she comes to realise that she is attracted to women. This part of Hargreaves’s personal story is the most interesting and compelling, from her then boyfriend’s initial supportiveness to her worries about coming out at work.

This latter topic again feels underserved, though: when one of the ward characters expresses homophobic comments before Hargreaves comes out, that same character is not revisited, making the otherwise affirming “nobody minded that much” theme, less effective than it otherwise could be.

But for all her work’s shortcomings, Hargreaves has at least hit upon the right narrative arc for the storytelling version of her life story. And, as with Kay’s work, the toll the NHS places on its staff ends with characters who are as burned out as they are passionate about the service, and who hate the way it is used as a political football to the detriment of the services, its staff and its patients.

Runs until March 25 2019 | Image: George Payne

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