THIS MAY HURT A BIT AT ST JAMES THEATRE, VICTORIA
Theatre Run: Wednesday 14 May - Saturday 21 June 2014
Performance Reviewed: Thursday 05 June 2014 (Matinee)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Going into Stella Feehily’s satirical take on the NHS, This May Hurt A Bit, one would be forgiven for expecting an onslaught of left-wing sentimentality or political bulldozing. The shows marketing and poster colourfully depicts a caricatured David Cameron skulking into the labyrinthine ward of a sickly woman like some nightmarish imp and the programme itself begins with an impassioned plea by Jacky Davis of ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ to rally against the devilry and smoke-and-mirrors of the coalition's treatment of the National Health Service.
However, despite elements of this running throughout This May Hurt A Bit, Stella Feehily, in conjunction with director Max Stafford-Clark, have crafted a far more balanced, even-handed affair and a show that is just as much about the people as it is the institution. Public hospital staff can be rude, dismissive, detached and downright incompetent, whilst wards themselves are over-crowded, inexcusably unclean and in places little more than glorified conveyer belts to the morgue. Yet this is levied with the fact that continuing cuts, exorbitant PFI interest rates and cyclical, perfunctory re-organisations (each new Health Minister said to needlessly shuffle with the system akin to a dog with a plaything) having lead to crippling levels of staff shortage and funding depletion. Whilst ultimately the show does fall quite comfortably in the pro-NHS camp - “Freedom from the fear of costs of ill health... We must never go back” Stephanie Cole’s Iris cites - waving around the looming threat of privatisation and foundation status almost akin to a doomsday prophecy (including a hilarious but very true nod to the privatisation of the rail services), this is not a naive or romanticised take on it’s subject matter, making it all the more truthful and moving as a result.
Predominantly structured around Cole’s character and her immediate family, lending proceedings a nicely empathetic and human angle, the show still sees fit to litter proceedings with some political perspective, from it’s cheekily critical prologue on the governments spin on it’s recent Health and Social Act, through to occasional cameo from contrasting historical perspectives on the NHS in the form of its founder, former Labour Minister of Health Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (Hywel Morgan) and staunch Tory and National treasure Sir Winston Churchill (Tristram Wymark). The pair waltz in and out of the action with nary an explanation or acknowledgement, and as is the case with the numerous ironic, witty if a little heavy-handed interludes and ‘commercial breaks’, Feehily and Stafford-Clark wisely let the content speak for itself and do not hold the audiences' hand in interpretation. Plus they get extra marks for a hilariously post-modern Margaret Thatcher cameo.
In fact, the pair make a solid partnership across-the-board, with the writing and Stafford-Clark’s direction organic, versatile and impressively fluid. Moments of genuine tenderness and poignancy can quickly burst into humour or deliberate absurdity and the show's message and perspective is, generally, deftly interwoven and demonstrated with admirable clout at times - see, for instance, the second act’s desperate nurse Gina (Natalie Klamar) who seems to demonstrate many of the woes facing NHS staff. She is bound by at times farcical standards of protocol and guidelines, and in a position where she can literally be sued, fired or forced to choose whose life to save at any minute. As the desperation mounts, it is quickly countered by a succinct, purposeful demonstration of how silently efficient and capable the NHS staff are where and when it counts as a patient slips into seizures. This being, of course, a patient that was nonetheless somewhat neglected beforehand due to Gina’s overbearing schedule and patient list. The balancing act continues.
The cast do a splendid job, with Stephanie Cole’s Iris a notable highlight. Offering shades of her Waiting for God’s Diana Trent, Iris is at times a trifle foul-mouthed, stubborn and cantankerous, but is a warm spirit and a staunch supporter of the NHS with a wealth of very human and sincere reasons for being so. Cole is a real delight in the role - radiating warmth, charisma and heart, and unsurprisingly hitting the notes both comedic and dramatic effortlessly. William Hope, similarly, offers fantastic comic timing and character work across four different roles, including a Grim Reaper that seems plucked straight from the BBC comedy archives and a gloriously insufferable and know-all American physician married to Jane Wynam’s snobbish ‘new-Republican’ Mariel. In fact, much of the cast handle numerous roles, with Frances Ashman showing impressive versatility from a useless ward receptionist to a scene-stealing mental health patient and co-star Hywel Morgan offering similar range and talent. Natalie Klamar spends much of the first act busying about in a handful of minor, mostly informative roles that do her little justice, but absolutely shines in the second Act as Gina, lending the show a tremendous amount of its heart and impact.
It’s almost impossible to call This May Hurt A Bit anything other than a success. It offers an incredibly fair yet impacting perspective on one of the Nation's most prolific and divisive institutions, whilst also quite crucially shedding light upon the important and potentially irreversible changes that are continuing to be implemented, more often than not outside of general public awareness. And yet all of this is very cleverly interwoven into a funny, moving tale and a surprisingly accomplished slice of new theatre that anyone with any experience of the NHS (hint: that’s all of you) should find both completely accessible and thoroughly entertaining.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
+ Impressively nuanced and fair depiction of the NHS
+ Brilliantly written and fluidly directed
+ Both informative and entertaining about important political issues
+ Stephanie Cole is once again an absolute treat
+ Natalie Klamar's Nurse Gina
+ Funny, heartfelt and affecting
- Some of the informative interludes are a little heavy-handed
THIS MAY HURT A BIT is running at the St James Theatre, Victoria, from Wednesday 14 May to Saturday 21 June 2014.
Alternatively, call the Box Office directly on 0844 264 2140 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of This May Hurt A Bit were provided courtesy of the Target-Live. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.