POLEMIC, COMIC, FURIOUS
(note: theatrecat saw this a fortnight ago in the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, where it premiered, but respects tonight’s embargo)
You might do well, before watching this, to read up both sides of the NHS argument. Stella Feehily’s play for Out of Joint and the Octagon, directed by her husband Max Stafford-Clark, was born of their experience during his treatment for stroke, and of political indignation: it owes its central statistics and argument to Jacky Davis’ polemic NHS SOS. On its way from Bury (where I saw it) to Bolton it had a performance at Westminster hosted by Lord Kinnock, who in early workshops played Aneurin Bevan. Bevan’s score-settling 1948 speech begins it, and he pops up throughout, in modern scenes. So it’s a show about indignation, not ambiguity: a cryof fear that we will copy the US insurance model and betray the Spirit of ’45. The most inspiring line comes from the 1647 Leveller MP Thomas Rainsborough: “The poorest he that is in england, hath a life to live as the greatest he”.
Having said that, it is a refreshing and often informative couple of hours, with some good theatre moments (the Grim Reaper gets the best laugh). There are some lines designed more to infuriate the Coalition than to enlighten anyone, though: the present PM, weirdly, is portrayed as an grey-haired senatorial posho (Brian Protheroe) and is tended by a cynical civil servant and an Australian PR thug. Their dialogue is like a very poor imitation of The Thick Of It.
But there are livelier illustrations: the first half introduces Nicholas, a retired teacher with prostate issues (Protheroe again), struggling with a suave consultant and chaotic computer booking. Sketchy, surreal, choral and polemic moments finally solidify into Nicholas’ family gathering with his snobbish sister and her American consultant husband. They argue about the NHS with his 90-year-old mother who remembers the Spirit of ’45. She is the treasurable Stephanie Cole, whose drop-dead comic timing and fierce stage presence pretty well steal the show.
Of course – being central-casting elderly – she has a fall, a confused episode, and the second act is set in hospital. Here Cole has competition from Natalie Klamar’s fabulous performance as an busy East European geriatric nurse, ricocheting willingly between laying out an offstage corpse, feeding cornflakes to a groping vicar with a stroke, dealing with the family and fielding a demented Caribbean lady shouting “Sexy bitch! (one of Frances Ashman’s four roles).
Their story is interrupted by statistical lectures and surrealism: Bevan argues with Churchill, and Jane Whymark as “The NHS” sits up on a trolley and reminisces on her dating history (“Clem was the best…then rather indifferent liaisons, Winston, Anthony, Harold, Alec, little Harold..Margaret cut me to the bone… Tony was the most tremendous disappointment, fell in love with city boys..”. The present one “Says I must heal myself, so why won’t he let me alone? What a shit!”
It is right that a theatrical vehicle should tackle current issues, but there are incurable steering troubles here because the vehicle is loaded unevenly. It is fixedly cynical about politicians’ motives, and equally fixedly sentimental about nurses, paramedics, comely young female consultants and lovable Geordie porters (Hywel Morgan, who also plays Nye Bevan). When an opposing point of view is briefly expressed it is given to the selfish, Americanized daughter. And Klamar’s rushed nurse is so heroic that there is no reflection of the complex human problems of the service, or of cases like Stafford. Even in my own extended family we have seen night nursing so lazily uncaring that a sick old man struggled , choking, and another wandered lost until a passing visitor helped him. The nurses sat chattering over teacups at the desk. Nor is there any mention of revolving-door bureaucrats or irrationally demanding patients. Still, everyone will find swipes to applaud: mine were PFI and outsourced cleaning.
box office 01204 520661 to 5 April or http://www.octagonbolton.co.uk
tourdates to 21 June including St James, London: http://www.outofjoint.co.uk