It’s one of our cornerstone institutions, yet one of our most embattled. Next year, the National Theatre gives us the story of the NHS’s founding, from the words of Tim Price. First, we’re given the stories of working in it 75 years on, from the words of the staff themselves.
This one-off performance is years in the making itself, gathering contributions from 19 trusts across the country for a truly national view. More than a piece of verbatim theatre, the contributors present their own material.
A relentless monologue, overlayed with the sound of hospital hubbub, reminds us of both the endless demands of the job, and the colossal network of people in the organism of the NHS.
There are eloquent tributes: midwives described as “sturdy as mountains”; others “fluent in emergency” and experts in “body language”. The latter is threaded through in a physical sequence where uniformed staff tend to folded-over bodies, limb by limb. It takes care to include the porters, ferrying vital trolleys with sheets and supplies, alongside the heroism of ‘find and treat’ units who seek out the vulnerable in hostels and soup kitchens.
It highlights the irony of job names, asking: “who cares for the carer?” And we gradually notice where they’re filming their videos: the corner of a ward or canteen; a basement or disused storage room with equipment abandoned in the background. Sanguine offerings in brief windows on the frontlines, while the machine chugs on around them.
Writer Chris Bush takes on the naysayers, interspersing scenes lampooning common provocations. One follows the Monty Python sketch and BBC licence fee advert, groaning “What’s the NHS ever done for us?” to become swamped with a growing list of life-saving innovations. Another figure gives a fumbling justification of his lack of sympathy to staff because “it’s your job; you chose this”. Michael Shaeffer and Robert Lonsdale perform these characters with a slightly heightened villainy, caricatures against the humility of the real people, that leaves these critiqes exposed for all their nonsense.
Other irreverent moments seem out of place. A stand-up presents a wheel of fortune firing out random numbers for us to guess corresponding arbitrary facts. There’s a Michael Parkinson imitation where audience members read out scripted answers about why staff persevere and what’s next. Yet it’s in these sections where the hard truths and discontentare delivered. Glass ceilings, government neglect and industrial action are all given flippant, piecemeal mentions.
It seems strange to celebrate the spirit without recognising the adversity it has to overcome. The closest it gets is Bush’s wittily satirical sketch of a couple whose ‘doctors and nurses’ role-play is thwarted by the unsexy reality of exhaustion and overstretched infrastructure.
While some speakers lean into corporate conference addresses, their earnestness is in extolling the curative value of art. There are reports of artwork reducing labour time, and first-hand testimony of a lullaby awakening a dementia patient or a folk band turning a yellow cancer patient pink. You understand why as performers’ own singing swells.
The most recurrent image is hearts – in words, images, badges, illustrations. And the piece exemplifies what the NHS does: heal. At the end, you’re left in no doubt that these people can bring others beating back to life.