Monday, 22 December 2014

Theatre review: Tiger Country

There's something of a mini-trend at the moment, of productions from about four years ago returning. At Hampstead there's Nina Raine's Tiger Country, which she once again directs on a wide traverse stage designed by Lizzie Clachan. A hospital drama with more than a little touch of the soap opera about it, it does in fact rise above what look like fairly generic beginnings. Young doctor Emily (Ruth Everett) transfers from Brighton to the Casualty department of a London hospital where her boyfriend James (Luke Thompson) also works - although he doesn't seem too keen on everyone knowing they have more than a working relationship. Emily is still heavily emotionally invested in her patients, in apparent contrast to Vashti (Indira Varma,) a surgeon whose colleagues joke has buried all trace of a personal life to help her progress in her job. But when her aunt (Souad Faress) is admitted to the hospital, Vashti finds it harder to maintain her stiff upper lip.

Elsewhere, Vashti clashes with her cocky junior surgeon Mark (Nick Hendrix,) cardiologist John (Alastair MacKenzie) can't cope with being on the other side of the desk when he finds a suspicious lump on his neck, and a TV medical show star, Geoffrey (Maxwell Hutcheon,) is in hospital for real, with no scripted happy ending in sight.

I wonder if the jokes about Mark having had a goatee are anything to do with
the goatee Nick Hendrix used to have? 'Cause yeah, it wasn't a good look.

The large collection of characters (with many of the actors also doubling up) is where some of the soapy feel of the play comes from, but Tiger Country does have an ulterior motive to all the personal dramas going on, making a subtle political point about the pressure the NHS is under. In the second act, the strain on Emily and James' relationship becomes a metaphor for the lack of communication between different departments in the hospital.

Everett, who is I think the only cast member returning from the 2011 production, does well with a character who always threatens to become irritating: Emily is a particularly talented doctor whose instincts have led to her catching a number of obscure diagnoses others missed, but her success rate means she's yet to confront her inability to save absolutely everyone. Despite all her colleagues agreeing it's essential to develop a thicker skin and some emotional distance, she remains judgmental of their ability to move on from the patients they lose. It builds up to a final argument with James in which he tells her she doesn't hold the monopoly on how to express humanity.

Vashti's emotional journey is going in the opposite direction meanwhile, and culminates in a moving scene where she admits to Geoffrey that there's nothing more the doctors can do for him. With busy movement sequences for the scene changes, illustrating the constant bustle, and projections by Dick Straker illustrating what's going on inside all these bodies, healthy or otherwise, Tiger Country maintains an energy that keeps the attention throughout (and meant I wasn't too distracted by having not one but two Big Favourites Round These Parts, Thompson and Hendrix, a couple of feet away in scrubs.) Raine even manages to step away from the clinical feel of the setting for a quasi-mystical touch in the surreal pronouncements of Gillian (Jenny Galloway) after a mini-stroke. With strong support from the lines of Shaun Parkes, Tricia Kelly and Wunmi Mosaku, plus an uncredited ensemble providing - sometimes literally - more bodies, Tiger Country is never dull, and comes across a lot better than I remember it doing four years ago. Although, not having to follow hot on the heels of Raine's excellent Tribes may be doing it a favour this time around.

Tiger Country by Nina Raine is booking until the 17th of January at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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