“Is that blood on the ceiling?”
Like many things in this country, the National Health Service is something that we all love to complain about – long waiting lists, jam-packed A&E departments, staff without any time to pay enough attention. But it is also an institution that many of us have cause to give huge thanks for, so to see it gradually decimated from within by insidious Coalition politics is a bitter pill indeed to swallow, though it is one which we have taken without too much complaint. Stella Feehily’s This May Hurt A Bit marries her own recent experiences of our health service with an overtly political study of how it has gotten into its current state and how we have let this happen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the personal inflections to her writing produce the most effective part of the play. Her partner, who just happens to Max Stafford-Clarke who directs here, suffered a stroke a few years ago and from their interactions with the NHS, comes the story of the elderly Iris and her family who are sucked into the system when she falls ill with a suspected stroke. Stephanie Cole brings a hugely affecting dignity to the role, laced with a cutting sense of humour, as she tolerates the mayhem of a modern overstretched hospital ward and her two adult children (Brian Protheroe and Jane Wymark) bicker by her bedside about whether they should go private or not.
The aching sadness of a geriatric ward is well-evoked by the motley crew of the other patients around Iris and the severely-tested kindness of Natalie Klamar’s overworked nurse is a constant delight with her pragmatic approach to prioritisation of care. But Feehily’s writing and Stafford-Clark’s production for Out of Joint has defiantly agitprop pretensions and so the narrative is interspersed with any number of random interventions – lectures, song and dance routines, the ghosts of Bevan and Churchill going at it, argumentative audience members – which trace both the establishment of the NHS in our cultural consciousness and the way in which consecutive administrations since Thatcher have undone it.
The two strands of the play end up as fairly uneasy bedfellows though, the interjections feel like a rather hackneyed way of incorporating the considerable research that has evidently been done and so large swathes of it end up feeling dated. The moments when it really sparkles almost all involve Cole working magic on even the most humdrum of dialogue but as the second half progresses, even that pleasure is taken from us as Feehily relies too heavily on the gimmick of old people swearing rather than actually being able to be funny of their own accord. So something of a disappointment in the end for me, plus I feel even more guilty for not having added my voice to those trying to defend the NHS.