As audiences return to theatres, will they want razzle-dazzle escapism or plays that grapple with the seismic events of the past 18 months? Few shows could claim to do both, but NHS the Musical delivers a bright, brassy night out while examining an institution beset by burnout and excessive workloads even before the pandemic.
Written by Nick Stimson and composed by Jimmy Jewell, it is put across with such energy that the cast seem to sustain the spirit of lockdown’s clap for carers across two hours of songs and skits. An opening montage of news footage starting in Wuhan serves as a reminder of how we came to be sitting, masked, in a theatre kitted out with sanitiser dispensers and approaching what may be one of the NHS’s worst winters in its history.
Michael Taylor’s set has the familiar glare and anonymity of a hospital ward. A wavy back wall evoking a cubicle curtain serves as a video screen and also intermittently reveals a swinging band. The actors mostly play archetypes – porter, doctor, politician – and we experience the NHS through the eyes of three patients. Jimmy Johnston portrays a wise-cracking pub landlord with a “dicky ticker”; Alice Frankham is a yoga devotee expecting a baby; Neil Stewart is waiting for a new hip and finds himself at the bottom of a long list.
This trio’s journey through a system that is as labyrinthine as the hospital itself is interwoven with startling statistics, bouncy songs comprising medical conditions and some familiar history. There’s the founding story of the service, with Johnston as Aneurin Bevan, whose “free at the point of delivery” line is neatly accompanied by a patient giving birth. Labour’s 1997 reforms are assessed and a multi-roling cast bring us cleaners, surgeons, an NHS manager (Justina Kehinde) obsessed with targets and ratings, and a pharmaceutical supplier whose jacket is lined with pillboxes.
The swift pace resembles a doctor doing the rounds and a whirl of headline issues are addressed, albeit at surface level. Boris Johnson’s £350m Brexit bus pledge goes unexplored; Peter Caulfield (a delight as the silky smooth doctor) dons a scarecrow wig to lampoon the PM in a toothless sketch while a simple cutaway to Matt Hancock’s face as a later punchline is far funnier. There is a clear sense of the service as a political football, as Sabrina Aloueche sports four different party rosettes to spout contrasting rhetoric.
The humour is often authentically blunt and deadpan, with the characters displaying surprisingly little of what nurse turned author Christie Watson termed “the language of kindness” in her memoir of that title. Earlier this year, a touring adaptation of that book captured more acutely both the inner turmoil of hospital staff and the warmth in their care.
What you do get here is a strong sense of the bond forged between patients amid their shared fear. The danger, throughout the show, is of such jolly songs and quips ever glossing over a single death from the pandemic. Two moving sections, one recognising how music can play an empty tune amid grief, are skilfully incorporated into the second half. Jordan Castle’s affable, rich-voiced porter plays a key role in keeping the show grounded.
The mechanics of a musical, a little like those of a health service, are complex and require different departments to work in sync. The elements here don’t always come together and a greater variety of tone – both musically and comedically – would be welcome. But the show’s ambition, vigour and heart-on-sleeve spirit are undeniable and it deftly demonstrates how a simple postwar vision resulted in a sprawling, often perplexing system that never sleeps and, ultimately, awaits us all.