Super High Resolution at the Soho Theatre – review
Nathan Ellis' play is placed against a backdrop of the NHS in crisis
The principal subjects of Nathan Ellis's new play are billed as being how it is to be a doctor in the present day NHS and what it's like to reach one's limits when it comes to caring for others. Timely, worthy themes for sure, but seeing the script come to life in Blanche McIntyre's punchy but sensitive production, it strikes me that where Super High Resolution scores most highly is in its painfully funny, mercilessly well-observed observation of family dynamics, specifically between two sisters who talk a lot but seldom truly communicate.
Anna is a doctor in her early 30s: embattled, smart, permanently knackered, a bit stroppy (probably BECAUSE she's permanently knackered) but a fundamentally good person (we eavesdrop on her counselling a patient she thinks may be self-harming, and she's touchingly, impressively empathetic). Her slightly older sister Becca is a tactless, smugly married step-mum trying for a baby and comically dismissive of anything she doesn't immediately connect with ("showing off, isn't it, running?" she remarks whilst waiting on the sidelines for her husband to pass as he competes in the London Marathon). Jasmine Blackborow and Leah Whitaker entirely convince as siblings and make a wonderful meal of the deliciously loaded dialogue Ellis has given them.
Blackborow also excels delivering a pair of compelling, staccato monologues, composed not of full sentences but of grimly humorous soundbites from the pressurised day of a working medic ("No. I'm not the nurse…Yes, a woman doctor…We're going as fast as we can"). She captures with unerring accuracy the demeanour and physicality of a decent human weary to their very bones, and Whitaker's Becca matches her with an equally vivid portrait of a woman so wrapped up in her own privilege that she can't spot that somebody she loves is in fact drowning not waving.
The rest of the cast are just as fine: Lewis Shepherd does lovely work as David, Anna's slightly improbable romantic interest (would she really pick up the brother-in-law of a patient?), while Hayley Carmichael and Catherine Cusack are spot on as, respectively, a patient and colleague instrumental in Anna's eventual unravelling. L J Johnson imbues Becca's teenage stepdaughter with a keen intelligence and feistiness that can't quite mask an innate compassion: when Anna tells her she thinks she'd make a great doctor, it rings entirely true.
The circumstances of Anna and David's liaison aside, Ellis does a terrific job of building up a realistic picture of a professional and private pressure cooker for his central protagonist that might, and does, boil over. One is left in no doubt as to the personal sacrifices Anna, and thousands like her, make to keep the NHS plates spinning, and the toll it takes. It's a shame though that, when everything comes to a head, the play lands on the somewhat tired tropes of romantic betrayal and suicide.
It feels as though Ellis wasn't ultimately sure what sort of play he wanted to make (is it a coruscating examination of what's wrong with the NHS? Is it a study of loneliness? Is it a bleakly funny dissection of dysfunctional family?) so decided to give us a bit of everything. The result is splendid and incisive in some parts, but baggy and indulgent in others. Andrew Edwards's set of endlessly rearranging hospital curtains adds to the sense of repetition, which is a useful metaphor for Anna's working life perhaps but gets a little tedious for the audience.
Despite these reservations, there's no denying that Ellis can write; much of the dialogue fairly leaps off the stage with the snap and bite of authenticity, and the characters are created with precision and flair. It will be interesting to see where his career goes next.