|Perhaps more so than any other profession, the working lives of doctors and nurses (or, at least, a dramatically palatable version of them) have come to seem intimately familiar through long running television shows; the hospital politics, the medical language, even the expected emotional journeys - of the idealistic junior doctor, of the tough female surgeon – all have a ring of the habitual.|
Nina Raine attempts to defamiliarize these narratives by transferring them from screen to stage, but she only succeeds in part.
Of her large cast of characters only two really stand out. Ruth Everett, as Emily the young doctor whose hide has yet to toughen, and Thusitha Jayasundera as Vashti, the ball-breaking genitourinary surgeon, an Asian woman playing in a game still dominated by English men. The other characters remain sketches in comparison: the tough but not unkind SHO, the experienced doctor given a glimpse of his own mortality.
Raine’s production, traverse staged across a sea of institutional blue linoleum, concentrates its energies on recreating the bustle of the hospital, from the fever of the incoming emergency and the precious lulls in between to the tightrope between levity and tension in the operating theatre and the sting of having to deliver bad news.
As with her previous play for the Royal Court, Tribes, Raine’s research has clearly been considerable but the play doesn’t wear it too heavily. Even so, it’s evident in the surgical-medical rivalry and sniping, the carping about the poor CD selection in the operating theatre (“oh no, not All Woman again”) and, more generally, in the interplay between the characters’ sense of resignation and weariness with the thrill and passion that drove them to study medicine in the first place. At its best the writing is reminiscent of the television work of Jed Mercurio - doctor turned novelists and screenwriter - though in a more dilute form.
Where the play truly lifts off is in the moments it hints at the things beyond the physical - the autonomic, the hunch in one’s guts, the hovering ghosts – and their necessary presence in the rational, medical world. In other places the drama is hamstrung by sheer overfamiliarity, never quite managing to reinvigorate situations that have been played out nightly on the BBC. Raine is in no way blind to this and even milks the ironies, showing a doctor unwinding after a night shift by flopping, beer in hand, in front of Doctors, (a show that must by now outrank The Bill on most actors CVs, including many of the cast).
Everett and Jayasundera strike the right notes with their respective roles and the ensemble playing is strong throughout. When Raine uses the potential of the stage to fracture the action, to make the audience look between and beyond the things they think they know (a stroke patient, dazed and dysphasic, is puzzled by the uncanny congregation around her, the sea of staring faces) then the production has real power, but this happens only intermittently and the lack of strongly defined characters does begin to become an issue as the play progresses.
Emily, confronted with the reality that she can’t save everyone as well as the growing understanding that if she becomes emotionally overinvested in every single case she will eventually burn herself out, duly toughens up while Vashti, her aunt ill following surgical incompetence, questions both herself and her priorities; none of the other characters is given much room to evolve and the result, in terms of narrative focus, is something like a photograph of a fast-moving object.
Reviewed for musicOMH