A new verbatim play about the NHS, created from interviews with doctors, nurses and historians.
If hospitals make you feel a bit sick, then it may be worth avoiding the Royal Court’s new show. The theatre’s backstage areas have been transformed, complete with disinfectant smells, signs saying ‘Now wash your hands’, uncomfortable plastic bench seats and retina-melting strip lighting. Even the swing doors say ‘NHS’.
‘Who Cares’ is a stark reminder of how in need of a proper fix our health service is. In Lucy Morrison, Hamish Pirie and Debbie Hannan’s promenade production we meet people connected to the NHS in a host of different spaces backstage at the Royal Court. There’s the doctor who believes we need to stop visiting GPs for every cough, the healthcare assistant who says we’re letting down mental health patients and an NHS regulator who questions whether our love of the institution is its biggest problem. The voices illuminate what people working for the NHS endure on a daily basis, but they are also frustrating: there’s very little consensus on what actually needs to be done.
The characters come from interviews conducted by writer Michael Wynne over 18 months and they demonstrate the stark contrasts in attitudes to the health service. At one point, Andrew Lansley champions his Health and Social Care act, while Julie (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Berrington), tells the story of how she managed to bring about the Healthcare Commission investigation at Staffordshire hospital after her mother, in her final few weeks of life, experienced nothing like care. It’s the personal stories that are the most affecting.
The audience trundle through different backstage spaces in small groups and though one or two of the areas designed by Andrew D Edwards are impressively convincing, the promenade aspect quickly becomes a little gimmicky. As we trudge up stairs and hang about in corridors, the tension is diluted, the momentum lost. For the final scene, we sit down in the Jerwood Theatre upstairs, which further reinforces the feeling that the piece would probably have worked better if it was all on a stage.
Programming ‘Who Cares’ in the lead up to the election, where many of our votes will be determined by whoever pledges to look after our ailing NHS, is well-timed. But listening to this troubling cacophony of voices doesn’t bring us any closer to finding a cure.