Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Theatre review: This May Hurt A Bit

How do you follow up a musical about piss? If you're the St James Theatre, it seems, you do it with a play that's really quite shit. Over at Out of Joint, writer Stella Feehily and director Max Stafford-Clark have discovered this exciting new form of political theatre from Russia called agitprop, which they've taken less than a century to bring to the UK. The destruction by stealth of the National Health Service is an incredibly disturbing subject that should be more honestly reported by the media, and one that deserves a lot better than Feehily's This May Hurt A Bit. The play feels so dated it has the opposite effect of what it intends: The topic is an urgent and current one, but the hackneyed attempts to bring it to the stage make the play, and consequently the subject it tries to highlight, feel like a museum piece.

So we're in for a couple of hours of agitprop cliché: Sketches about politicians trying to spin what they're actually doing into more reasonable-sounding soundbites, or patients having to get past understaffed, over-complicated procedures to be seen by a doctor, interrupted by "audience member" Natalie Klamar telling them they've got it all wrong and lecturing the audience on how it really is.

Hospital boards of directors sing acapella numbers about the importance of meeting profit targets to stay open; Nye Bevan and Winston Churchill turn up to revive their arguments over health provision; the NHS itself is presented as a dying old woman with dementia. The names of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair are used as punchlines without an actual joke behind them. A quick mention of Breaking Bad is used as a throwaway attempt at a pop-culture reference - ironically enough, since that provides a much better indictment of US-style healthcare than this play ever could. I did spend a lot of my time wondering why I was watching a bunch of professional actors preach to the converted in what appeared to be a student play.

At least among those actors comes the one saving grace: The wonderful Stephanie Cole plays Iris, who has a fall which affects her usually pin-sharp mind, and ends up on an understaffed geriatric ward. They say you can't polish a turd, but Cole's skill with a barbed comment is such she proves otherwise, and the dreadful dialogue actually manages to raise a few laughs in her hands. Unfortunately the play then goes on to waste its best asset as Feehily succumbs to the idea that having a little old lady say "fuck" is the funniest thing on earth, so that's pretty much all Cole does for the latter part of the show. Contrary to the show's patronising insistence that the audience has no idea the NHS is being privatised by any other name, I've seen many other concerned pleas for its salvation over the last few years, all more convincing than this misfire.

This May Hurt A Bit by Stella Feehily is booking until the 21st of June at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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