“I’m losing patience with the patients”
Tiger Country is the third play by Nina Raine, writer of the best play out of all 271 that I saw last year, Tribes (which still gives me goosebumps when I think about it now) so there was nooo expectations lying on this show at all. Actually, it wasn’t too bad as I knew the subject matter here, the modern NHS, was not something that I have any connection to (unlike as in Tribes), but I was still looking forward to seeing another facet to this fast upcoming playwright’s work. Interestingly, Raine also serves as director here at the Hampstead Theatre, this writer/director thing being something which this season at Swiss Cottage has featured heavily (Athol Fugard and Mike Leigh being the other culprits).
Raine’s production reconfigures the space in traverse, allowing for the hustle and bustle of hospital life to be quickly and efficiently portrayed. We see emergencies being rushed in by paramedics, the studied quiet of the operating room, the weariness of the staffroom, private rooms for terminally ill patients, cubicles, wards, offices staffed by a range of medical professionals with varying degrees of enthusiasm, coping with terminal exhaustion and a hierarchy that won’t let go of age-old rivalries between departments. Looking at the personal and professional lives of the medical staff as they deal with the unrelenting pressure to make the right decisions for both their patients and themselves.
She has created an impressive roster of characters, helped by a large cast several of whom double up as patients as well as medical staff, and she does well as defining them clearly, I had little trouble remembering who was who and the relationships between them which is quite impressive. However, by spreading the material over such a populous dramatis personæ, the play struggles to dig deeper into many of its characters and only two really emerge as fully-rounded.
Both are women: one is Emily, a wide-eyed SHO just starting out at this hospital and still naïvely convinced that she can cure or save everyone and the other is Vashti, a urology registrar whose battles to be taken seriously over her gender and her ethnicity have given her a fearsome reputation as a abrasively brusque b*tch. As Vashti, Thusitha Jayasundera gives a terrific performance but crucially is lended the most engaging emotional journey in the play, as she is forced to become the ‘relative’ when her aunt suffers complications during an operation making her question her priorities and just how much she is actually willing to sacrifice for her career, culminating in the most genuinely affecting moment of the show as she tells a terminal cancer patient the truth about his prognosis.
Emily’s journey is less sympathetically sketched, or maybe it was just my reaction to Ruth Everett’s performance, as someone who just cares too much despite everyone around her warning her not to and it came across as a little too predictable, like the pilot episode of every medical TV drama ever. And whilst her arrival proved a useful device for taking the audience around the different parts of the hospital, her amazing diagnostic skills just made me dislike her even more which I don’t think was part of Raine’s intention!
Henry Lloyd-Hughes as James the junior surgeon who is more than willing to play the game to advance his career right down to already wearing brightly coloured socks, much to girlfriend Emily’s horror, is good and particularly persuasive at trying to drag her out of her naïveté. Adam James as a cardiac registrar confronted with his own mortality and Pip Carter as a rival arrogant junior surgeon to James were both excellent but criminally underused for my liking, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Joan Kempson and David Cann also shining in small roles.
Tiger Country is a play with nice ambition and a great deal of potential which unfortunately is not particularly well-realised here. One can see just how much painstaking research has gone into this but the resulting dizzying kaleidoscope of characters, issues and storylines means that only occasionally does everything come into sharp, affecting focus with some fascinating insights into the role that hunches play for doctors and other surprising nuggets of information: the rest of it is a little bit lost in a whirl of endless medical chatter, disposable hospital gowns and umpteen pairs of crocs.