Happy Ending

Anat Gov
Daniel Krupnik Productions
Arcola Theatre

Gillian Killpatrick s Carrie Evans, Karen Archer as Miki, Andrea Miller as Silvia and Thea Beyleveld as Sarah Credit: Piers Foley
Thea Beyleveld as Sarah Credit: Piers Foley

Israeli dramatist Anat Gov here tackles head on two very contemporary subjects: dealing with cancer and dying with dignity. It is a report from the front, for Gov wrote it three years after herself being diagnosed with the disease in the year before she died, aged 58, in 2012.

That makes it sound pretty heavy-going but this a play that is seriously funny. It might not make the best night out if you have just been diagnosed yourself but it is life-affirming rather than depressing.

It even describes itself as a musical, though it is really a play with some musical moments, four in fact (composed by Shlomi Shaban and Michal Solomon), and those placed more like Brechtian comment than show songs. Their content is somewhat blunted by amplification that makes most of their lyrics comprehensible, though one is clearly a catalogue of drugs building on the pile which had just been presented to a patient, most to counter the ill effects of the one before it.

Others “celebrate” surgery and symbolise cancer as a crab-clawed flamenco partner and the most effective is wordless: an exchange between a patient and her dishy consultant oncologist.

That particular patient is a star actress, Carrie Evans, hoping to pass incognito behind dark glasses. Some hopes when Oliver Stoney’s Dr Lynch, on his morning round, lets out all her details in discussing her case with his students.

Gillian Kirkpatrick doesn’t play for sympathy as Carrie Evans, and at first it goes more to other women already on the ward rather than to this self-conscious celebrity.

They are a very individual trio give vigorous characterisations: former hippy Miki (Karen Archer), who has got her doctor to prescribe pot to relieve her condition, Silvia (Andrea Miller), a fighter and survivor ever since her birth as a holocaust baby, and Sarah (Thea Beyleveld) who likes quoting the Bible when she isn’t being rung up by her incapable husband and children who can do nothing without her help, and who, despite her apparent domesticity, is training to be a rabbinical judge.

With its critique of medical manners, staff shortages, nursing dedication and depiction of patient behaviour, this could be an NHS satire (and doctors might learn lessons from it) but, despite a reference to a play at “the National”, this adaptation by translator Hilla Bar doesn’t suggest a real British hospital.

There is a sharp Jewish edge to the humour, but the plot’s contrivance and range of characters make it feel like an early soap opera with Jodie Jacobs's delightful Nurse Fiona at its centre and Kimberley Ensor’s wigmaker Samantha a turn straight out of a comedy special.

The balance between genres misfires somewhere, though that doesn’t stop Guy Retallack’s production from being both funny and, as the initially frightened actress gains the strength to insist on controlling her own life, moving.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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