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Alan Bennett’s last play, People, at the NT six years ago, was about the heritage ‘industry’. It tried to cover so many issues that it lost focus and proved a bit of a disappointment. He covers a lot of ground here too, but it’s more cohesive, a homage to the NHS with a swipe at the decline in our sense of social responsibility for good measure.

We’re in a Yorkshire general hospital, led by trust chairman and former Mayor Slater, that’s facing closure. They’re campaigning against it, and in the geriatric ward they’ve set up a choir as part of the campaign. There’s an omnipresent film documentary team, which Slater hopes will aid their campaign. Dr Valentine (anglicisation of his real name) is a caring doctor with a gentle bedside manner and genuine affection for his geriatric patients, but he’s facing deportation. Sister Gilcrest is old school, obsessed with continence and cleanliness. Nurse Pinkney is more focused on contentment and happiness. The real interest of Salter is his own career. Amongst the visitors, patient Mrs Maudsley’s family are predatory fortune hunters and coal-miner Joe’s son Colin is up from London, exorcising his fraught relationship with his dad; he’s a Management Consultant advising the Health Minister, an architect of closure plans. Just before the interval it takes a sinister turn.

Bennett’s acute observation of people shines again with finely drawn characterisations, delicious turns of phrase and a very clever unfolding narrative. I couldn’t stop smiling at the new ward names, changed at the suggestion of the minister. The twelve geriatric patients each have lovely back stories, which they share with us between songs. Our attitudes to the old, patient abuse, bed blocking and the obsession with targets, specialisation, outsourcing and privatisation are all covered. Of course, its very funny, but its also poignant and bang on target much of the time. Valentine’s final words direct to the audience pierced my heart.

The twelve patients are a delight, veteran thespians relishing such great writing. Deborah Findlay is brilliant as the cold but seemingly loyal, hard-working ward sister who becomes positively chilling. Sacha Dhawan has genuine warmth and empathy as Valentine. Samuel Barnett’s character Colin is rather unsympathetic, but he spars with Jeff Rawle’s brittle dad and both do eventually melt. There’s a lovely cameo from David Moorst as work experience affable Andy, who also turns unexpectedly. Peter Forbes makes a great job of the pompous self regarding Salter. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley have worked with Bennett a lot, and they continue to serve his plays well.

I think the play divides people in many ways, with older audience members, NHS advocates and lefties the most positive. I loved it!

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Verbatim theatre meets promenade performance in Michael Wynne’s piece about the NHS. Seeing it the day before the election and now writing about it a day after the results gives it an extraordinary resonance, relevance and poignancy.

We start and end as an audience of c.40, initially in an A&E waiting room listening to the experiences and views of doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners and patients. From here we split into three groups for more intimate meetings in GP surgeries, outside a hospital, in an operating theatre etc. hearing more real testimonies and opinions before we assemble for a series of concluding scenes in the Theatre Upstairs. A lot of verbatim theatre is too dry and a lot of promenade performances allow the marshalling to interfere with the flow, but this solves both of these problems with warmth and humour and snatches of dialogue en route from scene to scene (particularly useful during the big climb up four or five flights of stairs!).

Though it’s clearly pro NHS, it’s reasonably objective, including the campaign against North Staffs incompetence and negligence and the impossibility of blank cheque funding. It’s more of an affectionate homage to the country’s best loved institution, taking us right back to its foundation through the White Paper ‘In Place of Fear’ (I never knew that). It really made me reflect on its value, it’s faults and its future. A unique institution which employs more people than any organisation in the world other than the US & Chinese armed forces, Wall Mart & MacDonald’s, and a recent and current political football.

In a uniformly fine cast, Elizabeth Berrington was very engaging as a GP and passionate as the North Staffs campaign leader, with Robert Bathurst very believable as both a dishevelled consultant and MP Andrew Lansley. Edna O’Brien is so lovely as Marjorie the old school nurse that you wish she was your mum, Philip Arditti’s character Jonathan provides effective continuity and there are excellent multiple characterisations from Paul Hickey, Martina Laird, Nathaniel Martello-White and Vineeta Rishi. I loved the way designer Andrew D Edwards uses all of the spaces, including corridors and stairs, so effectively.

It’s great to be heaping praise on the Royal Court again, doing exactly what they do best – putting up a mirror to our society and making us reflect and think.

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