NHS The Musical at Theatre Royal Plymouth – review
The show is set to tour next year
As opening sequences of musicals go, NHS the Musical has a powerful one. A montage on a curved screen fill the stage with headlines and news footage from the past 18 months – from the outbreak of a strange disease in Wuhan to thousands of deaths in crisis-hit hospitals. Then bang – straight into a big musical number (albeit with a cast of seven).
It sure packs a lot in. First performed in 2006 in the smaller Drum auditorium, it was a simple production but had a sense of urgency and was packed with passion. Moving to the much larger Lyric auditorium for this revised revival has changed it. Facts and figures bombard you from the stage-wide screen, behind which are the six-piece band. There's film and graphics and lots to distract you. It's certainly filling the bigger space.
We see an NHS under enormous pressure – inside and outside. There are shortages of doctors and nurses, growing waiting lists and increasing demand from patients who expect a widening range of treatments. Mix that with the interference of the administrators, politicians and drug company interests and you have a recipe for disaster, were it not for the dedication of the staff. We've come full circle.
NHS The Musical is in a nostalgic mood when it evokes the National Health Service's birth on 5 July 1948. A post-war nation was assured by Aneurin Bevan that they would be cared for "from the cradle to the grave". In years to come, he claims, we would become so healthy that the demand for the service would reduce. That got one of the biggest laughs of the night.
The birth of the NHS coincides with the birth of one of three patients whose stories we follow. Robert has worked in manual labour all his life and now needs a hip op. Andrew, a pub landlord, is heading for a heart attack if he carries on abusing his body with fags, booze and fried foods. On the other hand, fitness guru Jillian (eight weeks pregnant) has all the signs of acute myeloid leukaemia. Who will win the race for a bed in the hospital sweepstakes?
Nick Stimson and Jimmy Jewell's musical touches on some serious issues with style. In many ways, it has the construction of a traditional musical – including Glitterball, top hats and high-kicking dance numbers. But sitting in a post-lockdown, now no longer socially-distanced theatre, it feels as though it missed a trick. I can't be the only person feeling angry at the moment. Angry at incompetence, greed and mismanagement that has brought us to our knees. No one understands that more than the NHS and the theatre. Covid is barely mentioned, a picture of Matt Hancock raises a laugh but no one booed a pantomime Prime Minister. As a musical, it is fine and jolly, but it could have been so much more.
It was telling that the biggest cheer of the night was for the NHS staff who joined the company (Sabrina Aloueche, Jordan Castle, Peter Caulfield, Alice Frankham, Jimmy Johnston, Justine Kehinde and Neil Stewart) on stage at the end to form a community choir.