Riding in the back of an ambulance when you’re not wearing a paramedic uniform isn’t usually the most agreeable experience but in Curious Directive’s The Kindness of Strangers, it’s all part of a unique audience experience. I say “audience” but, because of the space constraints, this quirky entry into the Norfolk & Norwich Festival has a maximum of four spectators for every show. And what a show it is.
Driven around Norwich with the darkened streets projected onto the inside of the rear doors, we share experiences of new paramedic Lisa, whose first ride out on the night shift brings home to her the full impact of her chosen career path.
Of course, with a maximum of four paying audience members a time, The Kindness of Strangers is more about making a statement than making a profit and the gradual erosion of Britain’s National Health Service by successive governments over the past 35 years is the target of some heartfelt – and arguably justified - criticism.
Lisa, brought convincingly by Welsh actress Emily Lloyd-Saini is joined by the unseen Sylvia (Sarah Woodward), a cynical veteran of the ambulance service, who has her sights set on a desk job where she can be more instrumental in halting the decay of the service she loves.
At each site around the city, we are met with a different soul in need of paramedical assistance – the collapsed father (Sam Terry), the teen with an unfortunate rectal problem (Harry Sheringham), the dementia-stricken widow (Susan Sheriden), and a drunken party guest (Natasha Rowen) – each with a story more poignant than the last.
We also meet Ben, played by Robert McPherson, a young cyclist, who interacts directly with the audience. While McPherson’s performance is entirely naturalistic and commendable, one has to ask whether this extra character doesn’t interrupt the flow of the main narrative somewhat.
Lloyd-Saini remains unflappable throughout, even when faced with a minor technical glitch that required some on-the-spot improvisation. Jack Lowe and Russell Woodhead’s razor-sharp script is a bitter commentary on the demise of a much loved and valued institution, that echoes perfectly Lisa’s hopefulness and Sylvia’s pessimism about its future.
Lowe, who also directs, and his creative team are to be applauded for pulling off with apparent ease what has to be one of the most complex theatrical stagings this reviewer has ever witnessed.