PLYMOUTH – THEATRE ROYAL
NHS THE MUSICAL till 25 September 2021
Theatre Royal Plymouth – 01752 267222
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 21 SEPTEMBER 2021
NHS – THE MUSICAL began life in 2006 at the Drum Theatre in Plymouth. Not having seen it then, I cannot comment on that version of the show, but I can only imagine it was quite different from the revival, now on the main stage of the Theatre Royal. Then a Labour government spent £76.4billion on the NHS. 15 years later, and taking into consideration the pandemic, the figure is something around £212.1 billion. Extraordinary amounts of money, not least when you compare them with the original £437million in its founding year. The make-up and scope of the NHS has changed considerably in the past 73 years.
Director of this production, Stephen Fletcher, writes in his programme note that “it feels right that our show reminds us just how important this institution is, and how we must fight for its survival.” After over 18 months of pandemic briefings, lockdowns, rainbow signs, doorstep clapping, masks and stark figures all day and every day, do we really need reminding? Joan Littlewood’s controversial and highly original satirical take on war, ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ takes an important subject and injects songs and comedy before landing the audience with a deep thrust in the solar plexus. It is powerful and memorable. ‘NHS – The Musical’ has a similar stance; taking something serious and adding music and humour whilst taking a sideswipe at all aspects of how it works; the systems, the people and politicians who run it, while trying to offer a message about its future.
Set against a vast video wall, the show inevitably starts with a reminder of recent times; news headlines and footage of COVID-19 – we have all seen it before, but a context is set. We then start to look back at the start of the institution in 1948. A history of the NHS’s development seems to be on the cards, but no, we jump to 2021 and meet three patients with their own individual conditions which need attention. What follows is a cross between a diatribe, a political rant and a largely negative view of the current state of the NHS. You can feel almost every aspect of it being beaten about with a big stick amidst the song, dance and laughter.
The musical numbers are witty and jaunty but often fail in making their point by being far too long. Less is more, and shorter, sharper songs would make more biting and lucid statements, but they are lost here in over-writing.
The storytelling is eventually abandoned as well. We reach the point where one of the three patients we met at the start, dies from their condition, but, as for the other two; we never see the end of their story. Did they die? Did the NHS help them? Is Mr Robert Aneurin Payne, who was born in 1948 when the NHS was formed by politician Aneurin Bevan, still on a waiting list? We don’t know. Everything is left hanging in the air as we are asked to hope the institution is safe in the future – no solution to the battery of problems presented are suggested but a final song is performed and the actors joined on stage by a choir of real NHS workers who are greeted with applause. It is certainly a poignant moment – but the only one in the show and provides a sticking plaster to the gaping shortcomings of the production.
What one might think of the NHS can be heavily swayed by ones own experience of it, and therefore this take on it will always create a certain controversy.
The performers work their socks off, showing their versatility throughout, carrying off multiple characterisations. The score is loud and brash with little subtlety, but performed well by the band who are occasionally in vision behind the video wall.
I made mention in my last review at the Theatre Royal about the poor attention to sound operation; again, there were numerous late microphone fade-ups resulting in multiple lyrics being unheard. This is poor.
Whilst I admire the ideas at the heart of the show, I do not believe they have been executed as effectively as they could have been. At two hours it felt very repetitive and any edge that was offered at the start had become blunt and ineffective. Somewhere in this lengthy revue there is a 30-minute smart satire bursting to get out.
BOOK & LYRICS – NICK STIMSON
MUSIC – JIMMY JEWELL
DIRECTOR – STEPHEN FLETCHER
CHOREOGRAPHER – BEVERLEY NORRIS-EDMUNDS
SET & COSTUME DESIGN – MICHAEL TAYLOR
LIGHTING DESIGN – MARK HENDERSON
SOUND DESIGN – GREGORY CLARKE
VIDEO DESIGN – DUNCAN MCLEAN
MUSICAL DIRECTOR – DANIEL MCLAUGHLIN