Review: A Fortunate Man (Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe)

New Perspectives adapt John Berger and Jean Mohr’s on-the-ground account of a local GP’s life

A Fortunate Man
A Fortunate Man
© Julian Hughes

In 1967, John Berger and Jean Mohr published an on-the-ground account of a local GP's life. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor offered a close-up view of the state of the National Health Service, 20 years in; perhaps one of rural Britain itself. Dr John Sassall, the Gloucestershire GP who listened to the community he sought to cure, became an emblem of a care system that cared.

"I'm not sure he'd survive in the NHS today", says a doctor in New Perspectives' staged explosion of the book. The strained, and so sometimes uncaring, health service sits behind the show; an awareness that figures like Sassall and communities like his in the Forest of Dean no longer exist – can no longer exist – in a world that's much more complex half a century on.

Framed as a performance lecture by two medical professionals, thoughtfully played by Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty, A Fortunate Man takes us through the book's content, while also offering context and critique. It hops about: a tableaux of a man whose leg was crushed by a falling tree, slides of Mohr's manipulated black and white photos, audio clips of Berger reflecting on the text.

It skips between past and present too. A scene in which a sympathetic Sassell writes a note granting a depressed young woman a week off work to find a new job jolts into verbatim interviews with doctors today discussing the difficulties of time-pressures and targets, the need to find physical causes to complex, emotional issues.

Fifteen years after the book's publication, Sassall committed suicide in his country home. He'd always struggled with his mental health and, as his son says, "He cured others to cure himself". His wife Betty, who passed away shortly before him, barely features in Berger's writing, but Michael Pinchbeck's staging suggests she kept her husband together.

His layered piece pines for a simpler time. In 1967, it was enough for Berger's texts and Mohr's images to sit side-by-side, each informing the other. Pinchbeck's production is far choppier in its form: a collage of re-enactments and readings, objects and archive material. Berger talks about understanding a setting to understand a subject, describing the Gloucestershire landscape before beginning his portrait. Pinchbeck recognises the need to consider far more: Sassall's story, the book's, NHS history, even that of Britain itself.

Its jumble – its mess – has an eloquence of its own, catching the confusion of contemporary life and the constraints that come with it. It gives a sense of organisational strain, a health service pulling in different directions at once, and of the personal pressure that manifests in mental health problems. In that, it's a fitting homage to Berger and Mohr's book 50 years on, to Sassall's life, and to the NHS as it exists today. As quietly considered and unshowily sophisticated as its protagonist, A Fortunate Man is a show that takes care.

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