Wednesday 25 July 2012

Theatre review: The Doctor's Dilemma

While a lot has been written about the topicality of a play being revived in the Olivier (Timon of Athens, which I won't be seeing until next week,) the National's middle stage is also playing host to a classic play with a lot of current relevance. The Doctor's Dilemma, which has just opened at the Lyttelton, is Bernard Shaw's look at the medical profession, and in particular the dangers that private medicine (which we seem to be steadily being pushed back towards) can hold. The title does what it says on the tin: Sir Colenso Ridgeon is a Harley Street doctor with a cure for tuberculosis that's still in the trial stages but which he thinks will guarantee success. Limited funds mean he can only treat ten patients, and he has to decide who gets the last available place: Selfless, generous but unremarkable Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson,) who's treated the poor for years while his own health fails; or Louis Dubedat, a talented artist with an appalling personality.

Shaw gives Ridgeon (Aden Gillett) an added twist in his decision to play god: Whoever he refers to a different doctor will most likely die, and Dubedat has a wife, Jennifer (Genevieve O'Reilly) who's caught the doctor's own eye. Even while her husband's still alive, Ridgeon is thinking about taking his place. The Doctor's Dilemma turns out to be rather an odd play. Interestingly staged here in Nadia Fall's production, with the kind of elaborate set (by Peter McKintosh) that has become a Lyttelton trademark, the production can't always disguise the often abrupt lurches from comedy to drama and back. Sometimes it's very effective, nowhere more so than when Malcolm Sinclair's verbose Sir Ralph punctures one of the play's most serious scenes with a hilarious mangling of a variety of Shakespeare speeches. At other points though it can make you wonder just what it is you're watching.

The play's also a bit of a slow starter as although there's a wealth of entertaining eccentric characters, the opening half hour takes its time introducing them. Despite the title there's more than one doctor involved, as well as Ridgeon and the unfortunate Blenkinsop we meet Sinclair and Robert Portal as a pair of dangerous, self-regarding quacks, and David Calder as the intermittently Irish Sir Patrick Cullen, a retired doctor troubled by the morality of the case. Though the first half is good, the second also benefits from an increased role for Tom Burke as Dubedat, amusingly unrepentant in his own awfulness, whose wife seems to be the only person blind to his womanising and constant "borrowing" of money, and who's more than capable of getting one over on the assembled doctors' sense of morality. Overall this is a bit of a strange play but one with a lot of interesting ideas, many entertaining moments and a protagonist with the capacity to actually be rather chilling.

The Doctor's Dilemma by Bernard Shaw is booking until the 12th of September at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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