Stella Feelhiy‘s passionate new play is a defence of the National Health Service, a portrait of an organisation in crisis and a warning of what might happen if the British public remain as quiescent as they are at the moment. It opens with Nye Bevan speaking in the House of Commons as the NHS is being created and we realise how little has changed as he refers to ‘sustained propaganda in the newspapers supporting the Party opposite’. He speaks of the nobility of what is being undertaken, tellingly, ‘despite our financial and economic anxieties’. Unfortunately his eloquence, intellect and wit also remind us of how second-rate his successors are. It’s hard to imagine many members of today’s Shadow Cabinet referring to Titus Andronicus as he does later in the evening.
The play goes on to show how the NHS is coping, or not, in the wake of the government’s massive reorganisation. A civil servant drolly tells the Prime Minister of all the problems the reforms will cause before helping him out with a few vacuous sound-bites for PMQs. Chiefly the NHS is shown through the people who work there and those who use it. We see a widowed ex-teacher with a prostate problem attending an appointment with a rude and arrogant urology consultant who rather improbably goes off on a tangent about weapons of mass distraction and China selling weapons on Iran when he notices his patient is a Guardian-reader. We see the teacher’s mother’s experience when she has a suspected stroke: the chaos and dirt in the hospital, the under-staffing of wards and the dedication of those who work there. Her daughter is married to an American doctor, which gives the opportunity for arguments over the relative merits of each system, though no one can be in any doubt which system Feelhiy believes is superior.
Max Stafford-Clarke‘s production for Out of Joint matches the theatricality of the writing. The excellent cast of eight play a variety of roles. There are realistic scenes of home and hospital life; events are interrupted by arguments between Bevan and Winston Churchill; the grim reaper pays a visit; there are songs and dance, a lecture on PFI and a weather forecast. The evening is frequently funny, shocking and moving.
But I have a few niggles. There are too many easy laughs at the expense of predictable villains: Americans (and their analysts), the Tories, New Labour, men who attend London clubs. Too much certainty can be off-putting. The play is unashamed agit-prop but a bit of debate wouldn’t come amiss; the arguments feel loaded. Whilst Feelhiy does show NHS staff who seem not to have the faintest idea of how to talk to members of the public, this is not a play that challenges its audience’s views. She is preaching to the choir. The snicker that greets a portrait of Mrs. Thatcher, the smattering of applause that greets Bevan’s line about scratching a Tory and finding a Fascist, the dismissal of recent scandals as a few bad apples suggest to me an audience getting exactly what it wants: reassurance of the rightness of its views. The NHS doesn’t need self-righteousness; it needs evidence-based arguments and some more money.
– John Campbell
This May Hurt A Bit plays at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 3rd May and then tours to Liverpool before playing the St James Theatre London 14 May-21 June.