AN AMBULANCE RIDE: A CITY’S HEARTBEAT
Some theatre enterprises are quixotic, site-specific, small-scale immersive and probably economically ruinous. Gotta love them: especially if the message and experience they deliver is worth it. This time it is: Curious Directive, under Jack Lowe (who directs) and Russell Woodhead (co-writer) have produced in a one-hour touring show for the Norfolk and Norwich festival a moving, thought-provoking take on the modern NHS and the legacy of Nye Bevan . Paradoxically, it hits home harder than Max Stafford-Clark’s recent bigger, angrier play This May Hurt A Bit.
Five of us at a time – better book early, only six shows a day – are loaded into an ambulance, issued with radio headphones and jolted off round South London streets (a trajectory is convincingly projected on the rear door). A young paramedic, Lisa (Emily Lloyd-Saini) travels with us: it is her first night shift out of training, exciting but daunting after working in a callcentre. Calls appear onscreen – lacerations, embarrassments, heart attacks. We hear 999 calls. Lisa fidgets, snaps her latex gloves on “in six seconds!”, folds towels, checks equipment, wipes bloodstains from the walls. Unseen, the older, seen-in-all virago Sylvia argues and reminisces in our ear, presumably from the wheel Sometimes she vents a cynical angry callousness about the decline of the NHS and the feeble rising generation like Lisa. But in contact with patients we hear her as a miracle of practised, tender tact and reassurance.
For there are patients. No spoilers, but at several stops, cast members (some local volunteers) appear as the rear door is flung open. Each of us in turn is beckoned by Lisa to join her. Cleverly, we are gestured to perform small, uninvasive services – wiping of the ‘patient’s’ face, for instance – while on the headphones rather more alarming things are being done. Our small contribution, symbolic as it is, brings home the intimacy of paramedic work. I got the drunk clubber girl in a onesie, falling off her chair and using the wrong end of the hairbrush. There’s another outbreak of bickering as the ambulance moves on. Sylvia despises the urban drunks; Lisa protests “Everyone in that club gets up and goes to a job they hate”.
We jolt on (covering, I suspect, less than two blocks in reality) hearing the argument and following Lisa’s thoughts which on call sometimes rise to a Dylan-Thomasish urgency – “Red lights. Rail Bridge. Two lanes. One land. Skoda, Volvo, Tesco – dirt track, double back, rucksack, out-the back!” Lloyd-Saini delivers this beautifully; but so do all the unseen performers, Sarah Woodward’s Sylvia is particularly powerful in her pragmatically poetic reflections on what her old boots have seen and done since the ‘60s, what lives her busy hands have touched, saved, or consoled in dying.
And yes, there is a story, and it rises to a dramatic climax. Theatre requires that. But the high drama is not what you take away: rather the doggedness, dedication, weary kindness, common humanity.