NHS The Musical
Nick Stimson and Jimmy Jewell
Theatre Royal Plymouth
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth
Returning to its alma mater after some 15 years, NHS the Musical is bigger and better, and revised to incorporate its experiences over the past 18 months.
Moving from a fervent, pared down, four-years-in-the-making piece on a minimal Drum stage to a slick musical with high kicks and top hats worthy of Busby Berkeley in the main auditorium, TRP Associate Nick Stimson and Jimmy Jewell tell a story well worth the telling.
With fact and figures injected throughout, the statistics keep a-coming with overwhelming speed while a whirlwind of history, politics and admin swamp the patient care as millions keep knocking on the doors of a service creaking under the ever-increasing demand.
Michael Taylor’s set is a soaring, wavy-walled edifice: a perfect screen for multimedia projections and motifs, and allowing a glimpse of the highly competent seven-piece band.
Opening with a montage of the breaking news of COVID in Wuhan and tracing its devastating journey west with exhausted medical staff rising to the challenge and forced to make unbearable choices, a neon heartbeat trace fizzles and dies with chilling effect.
Jordan Castle (The Light in the Piazza, Standby Old Deuteronomy) as the narrator Porter (and a fab comedic piece as the infection control inspector) is mellifluous—a beautifully rich voice with superb enunciation—marred only by some early sibilance. As the glue to the proceedings, Castle adds gravitas to the frenetic gallop through the history, breadth and problems showcased by vignettes ranging from the GP surgery to operating theatre, politicking by every colour and being taken financial hostage by the leeches of big pharma. We witness the birth of the NHS as Aneurin Bevan persuades the old school doctors (paid handsomely—7s 6d—for a home visit as patients coughed up half a week’s wages for treatment) that institutionalised medicine is not just socialist claptrap but should be free at the point of delivery from the cradle to the grave.
Intertwined throughout is the hospital sweepstakes featuring three runners / strugglers with a cure in their sights and obstacles to overcome. Worn out Robert Payne (an on-point Neil Stewart (Jersey Boys, Mrs Henderson Presents)) is 73 and in need of a new hip. The pain is crippling but he doesn’t want to moan, however, being pushed down the list and with cancelled ops, he is reaching breaking point; champion boxer turned musical theatre graduate and Olivier Award multiple nominee Jimmy Johnston (Dreamboats and Petticoats, Cats, Barnum) is completely believable as the hard-drinking, wise-cracking, junk food junkie and smoker whose chest pains open the door to heart bypass surgery—provided the surgeon is not held up in his private practice and has to cancel—while Alice Frankham (One Man, Two Guvnors, The Royals) is Jillian Geddes, the shiny, well-looking, newly pregnant yoga teacher with unexplained bruises and fatigue but whose suspected leukaemia seems to be the golden bullet with only a 14-day wait for an appointment.
Clever motifs, rotating doors and unmemorable but perfectly pleasant songs break up the litany of despair as the drugs salesman’s soft shoe shuffle and pill-lined jacket holds the answer to everything: liposuction when we binge, happy pills when sad, downers when mad and drugs to keep us alive when better off dead—but all at a price. And so the fat cats get richer, the politicians’ friends get the contracts while the NHS has a £83bn medical negligence claims bill, half the staff are sick or shielding and there’s a deficit of essential equipment.
Hoofer Peter Caulfield (One Man, Two Guvners, Our House) is charismatic as Doctor—whether hard-pressed on the wards or drying tears and quelling fears as the overworked GP whose precious time is sapped by the lonely and the worried, while Sabrina Aloueche (We Will Rock You, Les Mis) compels as the Politician, using the NHS as an election gambit and paying lip service to its heroic professionals but refusing to back the WHO’s endeavours for a patent-free C-19 cure. Statuesque Justina Kehinde completes the line-up as the NHS manager (and flirty receptionist) charged with targets, client feedback surveys and CQC data requirements as beds are 110% full, waiting lists get longer and the likelihood of future selection for treatment comes closer.
Informative, interesting and with a talented cast joined by members of the NHS Choir for the grand finale, it is a sobering, thought-provoking couple of hours.
Reviewer: Karen Bussell