Gary McNair's tender, disturbing drama about a couple’s struggle in a post-NHS world
The NHS’s seventieth year has inspired numerous shows at this year’s Fringe, diagnosing the institution’s troubles via a myriad array of approaches, from confessionals by actual doctors to Mark Thomas’s excellent docu-theatre piece ‘Check Up’ or the surprisingly devastating new stand-up show from comic Luisa Omeilan.
Gary McNair’s ‘After the Cuts’ is the only actual drama on the subject that I’ve thus far spotted, a 2040s-set sort-of dystopia that imagines a post-NHS Britain.
If that sounds like it has the potential to be overwrought and polemical – well yes, it does, but McNair has a deliberately narrow focus here. While we’re made aware in passing that things like chocolate and petrol have become scarce in this world, Beth Morton’s slow surning production avoids complicated world building: it’s entirely set in a single couple’s shabby, twentieth century-style living room.
Sweetly eccentric Jim (George Docherty) and brittle Agnes (Pauline Knowles) are a desperately poor older couple. There are, of course, poor people now. But at least they have the NHS. Here the couple have insurance – but not a package that covers Agnes when she is diagnosed with lung cancer, something revealed to her by a kafakesque, entirely automated phone system.
It’s a sad, tender, often amusing portrait of two people struggling in a society that has turned its back on them. It also takes an unexpected turn, as the resourceful Jim decides he can see a possible last chance. I suppose I shouldn’t give too much away, but the last 15 minutes include gruelling – if implied and non-graphic – scenes of surgery that made me genuinely queasy.
It’s not easy to watch, but McNair’s play takes us on a genuinely unexpected journey, avoiding both angry polemic and kitchen sink drama cliches in favour of something both bleaker and warmer, a vision of love in the darkness.