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Who Cares (Royal Court)

An immersive exploration of the NHS misses the mark

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Eileen O'Brien as Marjorie
© Tristram Kenton

I had high hopes for this new 90-minute promenade piece about the NHS. At a time when this noble institution is once again being used as a political football as the general election looms, we need a play that illuminates its problems and effectively sticks up for the people who make it what it is. But, sadly, Who Cares isn't it.

The action starts in a building adjacent to the Court (simply called 'The Site'), which usually serves as a rehearsal space. In a pretty realistic mock-up of an A&E waiting room, we're addressed by a number of figures - doctors, nurses and patients - who give us snapshots of their lives and the challenges they face. Divided into groups we then visit various other spaces, from a GP's surgery to a birthing suite, to hear more detail of the unique struggles of the staff and those in their care.

Playwright Michael Wynne, whose comedy The Priory played on the main stage in 2009, has compiled an admirable cross-section of verbatim testimony, with those we hear from ranging from cleaners to government ministers. And there are some interesting nuggets - the paramedic (Nathaniel Martello-White) who reveals the NHS's inner "class system"; the cardiologist (Robert Bathurst) who claims healthcare is "part of the entertainment industry"; the battle-worn midwife (Eileen O'Brien) who offers us tea before revealing she herself lost two babies.

Nathaniel Martello-White in Who Cares
© Tristram Kenton

These are affecting human stories which, when threaded together, should present a moving tapestry. But, somehow, they don't. The speed at which we're shunted from room to room, and the way we slip in and out of settings (one minute we're in a mocked-up hospital ward, the next in the Royal Court's administration offices), distract from the testimonies we're there to hear. I found myself wondering if a more random, Punchdrunk-like approach could have been more effective; I craved more control over who I was listening to, and for how long.

It's a pity, because when the groups reconvene for a finale in the Theatre Upstairs, we're presented with a decent 20-minute playlet that explores the extent of government interference, the causes of the Mid Staffs scandal, and examines in more detail the life of the aforementioned midwife, whose story typifies the journey of the health service she serves. But much like a manifesto it soon gets bogged down in a bombardment of facts and platitudes. One of these at least makes clear who this is really aimed at: "Why aren't the public bothered... people have got Sky TV and six beers so who cares?"

Full credit to Wynne and his trio of directors Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie for bringing the NHS into focus at this crucial time. But, as someone who cares a great deal about this world-beating institution, Who Cares left me none the wiser as to either its root problems or potential cures.

Who Cares continues at the Royal Court until 16 May