“Is our emotional attachment to the NHS gonna stop it changing in the way that it needs to, to continue to thrive and survive?”
The product of eighteen months of interviews with people working in and around the National Health Service, Michael Wynne’s verbatim play Who Cares is an impassioned but clear-sighted cri de coeur for this venerable British institution but one free from too much rose-tinted sentimentality, as it performs an uncompromising health check on that which is meant to check our own health. And the prognosis? The NHS may possibly be screwed but theatre’s in great shape.
Starting off in the rehearsal rooms next to the theatre and eventually ending up in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Who Cares is a promenade production that weaves its way inside and out, up stairs and down, backstage and on, as the audience – split into small groups – take in a multitude of vignettes of the interviewees’ experiences, presented in imaginative and inventive ways by the show’s three directors, Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie, plus designer Andrew D Edwards, Natasha Chivers’ lighting and Daniel Krass’ sound.
From nurses on a teabreak to surgeons failing at a game of Operation, GPs rattling through their list to cleaners working a grim night shift, these snippets of the NHS in action burst vividly to life in front of us and in such small groups (and in such small spaces, as corridors, stairwells and storerooms), connection to the material is unavoidable. Whether emotionally through our own experiences or more viscerally due to the directness of its delivery, it feels impossible to ignore how integral a part of our society the NHS has been.
Wynne’s shaping of the text also shows us how that position isn’t inviolable as later scenes see us eventually seated to see the trials deconstructing its role in our lives – the cock-ups and cover-ups, the political machinations, the financial realities – and forcing us to ask if our own sentimentality is part of the crisis. At one point we’re asked “is our love of the NHS its biggest problem?” and it is to the production’s credit that no answer is immediately apparent.
The eight-strong cast – Philip Arditti, Robert Bathurst, Elizabeth Berrington, Paul Hickey, Martina Laird, Nathaniel Martello-White, and Eileen O’Brien – are fantastic throughout, covering multiple roles, locations and complete shift in tones with a remarkable fluidity. O’Brien’s emotive nurse-turned-patient is both sensitive and sensationally powerful, Hickey’s Aussie cardiologist a charismatic conduit for showing the baffling decisions behind using ever-more expensive medication, and Berrington’s whistle-blowing campaigner is painfully eloquent even as the establishment bulldozes right over her.
Provocative, potent and yes, political, Who Cares largely sidesteps issues of party politics to ask no-less-burning questions about what kind of society do we want to be and how much it really costs to put a value on caring.