Writer: Stella Feehily
Director: Max Stafford-Clark
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Now 65 years old, the NHS should settling down and become a grand old lady of state, mature and an institution at the heart of society. Instead she’s constantly reinventing herself more times than Madonna.
In Stella Feehily’s This May Hurt A Bit, the NHS is more than an institution, it’s a character in its own right that needs to be nursed as much as the patients she serves.
The sheer scale of the NHS has grown into something that founding-father Nye Bevan could never have dreamed off, but does that scale help or hinder the patient? For the James family there’s a love hate relationship with the NHS and that sheer scale of care and paperwork.
For Iris, who can remember the day Bevan launched the service, the NHS is at the very core of identifying who she is. She’s paid into it all her life and will defend it vehemently – even with its shortcomings. Son Nicholas though has a more wavering view, using the service through necessity but without the rose-tinted glasses of his mother.
For expat daughter Mariel though the love affair is over. Married to an American Doctor she’s much happier in the hotel-like hospitals of American private practice. When all three find themselves in the grim but hopeful Harrington Hospital they are each forced to consider their standpoint.
Feehily’s richly textured script however offers more than a linier journey through the wards, avoiding turning the piece into Casualty on stage she weaves in surreal interventions from across the NHS’ long history together with musical interludes and direct audience address into the more conventional play structure. It’s a device that takes some getting used to and the Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall occasionally pushes back the emotional engagement a couple of steps.
Max Stafford –Clark’s direction draws fine performances from the company, each playing multiple rôles to populate both the hospital wards and the corridors of power. Tristram Whymark’s sensitive and moving portrayal as stroke patient John is particularly effective as is Frances Ashman’s put upon Auxiliary Tabitha, forced to ‘sell’ the benefits of foundation status to a cynical waiting room. There’s also fine work from Stephanie Cole, the patient who staunchly defends ‘her’ NHS and Natalie Klamar’s Gina, a nurse whose deadpan whit belies the passion she has for her patients.
Tim Shortall’s impressive set provides the fluidity needed to shift seamlessly between multiple locales and Stafford-Clark keeps the tempo just right, sensing just when the patient needs to rest or when the piece needs adrenaline pumped into its veins.
The NHS has become a political hot potato over the years with, as Feehily explains, successive Health Ministers tinkering with the model to make their mark. It May Hurt A Bit also wears its political affiliation clearly on its sleeve. In a way it doesn’t need to. The political rhetoric seems laboured at times and the arguments about cuts, staff shortages and financial targets hold enough weight on their own and Feehily should have faith in those threads.
Overall it’s a minor niggle in what otherwise is a powerful and vital look at the history, opportunities and threats that face one of our most cherished institutions. It’s both a thank you for the staff who dedicate themselves to the patient and also a get well soon card from a concerned relative.
Runs until March 15 then tours nationall