The Theatreguide.London Review
Hurt A Bit
St. James Theatre May-June 2014
Playwright Stella Feehily and director Max Stafford-Clark have assembled a passionate defence of the National Health Service against the politicians and bureaucrats seemingly determined to destroy it, but the end product is more to be admired as evidence that their hearts are in the right place than as a piece of theatre.
Part drama, part lecture, part history lesson and part undergraduate revue, some of This May Hurt A Bit's parts are effective, but they don't hang together to make a successful whole.
The narrative backbone of the evening is provided by several episodes following one family – elderly mother and adult son and daughter – through their experience of today's NHS.
The son encounters a coolly indifferent doctor and an incompetent clerk, while the mother's brief stay in hospital makes them aware of a criminally under-budgeted and understaffed system with individual doctors and nurses doing heroic work to keep the whole thing from collapsing.
Mother was around for the formation of the NHS in 1948 and knows what a wonder it was, and while her daughter has been somewhat Tory-ised, her son shares her socialist idealism, so there are several well-written debates among them about the merits or dangers of NHS reform.
Punctuating and occasionally interrupting these scenes are direct lectures to the audience, complete with charts, on the history of the NHS or the evils of PFI, fantasy scenes in which the spirits of Aneurin Bevan and Winston Churchill appear to discuss and debate, and self-contained revue sketches like the one in which an old woman in a hospital bed becomes the NHS recalling her list of Prime Minister lovers or the current PM and an aide struggle to find jargon that puts a positive spin on an incomprehensible NHS reform bill.
Some elements, like the Bevan-Churchill sequences, are interesting; some, the catalogue of NHS cuts presented as a jolly TV weather report, are clever; and some, like the family scenes, are even emotionally involving.
But every strand seems to come out of a different show, and Stella Feehily's attempt to be dramatic and satiric and informative and evocative and provocative and funny and serious and enraging means that the evening as a whole is never completely successful at any of these.
It is bits and pieces – for me, the absolute authority and ease with which veteran actress Stephanie Cole holds the stage as the mother, and the supporting performances of Brian Protheroe, Natalie Klamar and the rest of the shape-shifting cast – that will hold you and stick in your mind rather than the whole show or its heartfelt message.
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