Impassioned and informative look at where the NHS is at right now
This review is from ‘Check Up’s run at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. It plays Battersea Arts Centre in April 2019.
Comedian-slash-activist Mark Thomas puts out a new show pretty much each year, like clockwork. It can be easy to take him for granted. But it's important to remember that he’s very good at it.
‘Check Up: Our NHS @ 70’ isn’t so much a fiery polemic about our beloved health system as a thoughtful and funny piece of docu-theatre about where it’s at as it turns 70.
To that end Thomas did his research. He was embedded with an NHS trust for a month. He conducted a series of public interviews with leading healthcare experts. And he had a good chat with a gleeful GP about everything that could possibly go wrong with his health between now and his death (almost everything, it turns out).
The show is directed by former Tricycle Theatre boss and verbatim theatre maestro Nicolas Kent, who would appear to have really put something of a rocket under Thomas as a performer. Where previous shows have used recordings of his interview subjects, Thomas now mostly speaks their words verbatim, accents and all. It’s engaging, and sometimes explosive: his one man recreation of the sudden chaos of an A&E department is startlingly effective.
It’s a souped up lecture, really - after a brief tour through NHS history, Thomas moves on to its present, chatting about everything from antibiotics resistant microbes, to the ongoing PFI debacle, to exciting prospects in the future of medical development.
The interspersed sections in which he describes his month-long placement are perhaps more entertaining than illuminating – but that’s important too, and a deeply compassionate section about a man having a gastric sleeve fitted feels important.
Privatisation, Tory underfunding, the Lansley reforms et al do all get duly blasted - but this isn’t a doomy rant about a system on the cusp of collapse, but a mature, level headed look at a service that’s struggling, but not drowning.
It’s unsentimental as well: Thomas points out that virtually every Brit suddenly becomes a swivel-eyed nationalist when it comes to the NHS - but on a global level it’s merely decent, to a large extent stymied by British aversion to high taxes (interestingly the reason massive tax rises were never previously required to fund it is because Britain’s huge post-war defence budget was effectively reallocated to it).
We all know where Thomas comes from politically, but ‘Check Up’ sees through the sacred cow nonsense that politicians of all stripes force on the NHS in favour of an impassioned interrogation that offers as much hope as despair.