Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Theatre review: Who Cares

Continuing the theme since Vicky Featherstone took over the Royal Court of having shows explode out of the usual boundaries of its auditoria, Michael Wynne's verbatim play Who Cares technically takes place in the Upstairs Theatre. But before it gets there Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie's promenade production takes the audience from the rehearsal rooms and offices behind Sloane Square station, to the staircases and corridors backstage, and the area that's usually the lighting booth of the Upstairs Theatre. This is all in service of us hearing the stories of, for the most part, workers in the National Health Service, building up a picture both of the emotional connection that this country has to the NHS, and exactly how it's being changed by successive governments - particularly the "stealth privatisation" brought in by the current coalition.

We start in a busy hospital waiting room where the patients are complaining about the long waiting times, before the audience is split into three groups according to the colour of our lanyards, and taken around the Royal Court's buildings to hear more intimate stories.

These start with fairly naturalistic stagings of a nurse (Martina Laird) on a smoke break bemoaning how filling in forms has become more important than doing her job; a paramedic (Nathaniel Martello-White) describing his career progression and how people misuse and abuse the ambulance service; a doctor (Vineeta Rishi) confessing most doctors know little or nothing about nutrition; and a pair of GPs (Philip Arditti, Elizabeth Berrington,) being inundated with patients who increasingly know nothing about their own bodies and panic at the slightest cough or cold.

As we move into the main building and up the stairs* things take a slightly more surreal turn: A string quartet (whose significance will become apparent later) starts appearing in the background while two surgeons (Paul Hickey, Robert Bathurst,) who've served as consultants for a number of Health Ministers, demonstrate the sorts of things politicians have tried to do to the NHS by performing surgery with paintbrushes and randomly swapping organs around.

This political angle is what dominates the final section in the theatre itself, as the whole audience is reunited in a traverse staging that examines the changes to the service and whether it's failing in its original mission - Berrington now returning as a campaigner who discovered some of the worst neglect in hospitals. I won't pretend Who Cares is completely even-handed, it clearly comes down in favour of the huge love the British people have for the NHS and the fear that it's being irrevocably destroyed in the name of profit, but it does allow some time for the suggestion that this affection stops people from seeing what necessary changes have to be made. It could be a dispassionate list of stats and arguments but it's emotionally anchored throughout by Eileen O'Brien as maternity nurse Marjorie - as she describes her own brush with illness and betrayal by the system she's worked for all her life, her seamless transition from funny, Northern pragmatism to emotional breakdown is truly affecting.

Who Cares by Michael Wynne is booking until the 16th of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (or thereabouts.)

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

*there is a lift that can be used by people with mobility issues, but the amount of short trips up and down and up stairs again did mean some of the older members of our audience group seemed to be struggling

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