The Kindness of Strangers

Devised by curious directive, written by Jack Lowe and Russell Woodhead
Curious directive and Norfolk and Norwich Festival
Southwark Playhouse

The Kindness of Strangers Credit: Jemma Mickleburgh and Russell Woodhead
The Kindness of Strangers Credit: Jemma Mickleburgh and Russell Woodhead
The Kindness of Strangers Credit: Jemma Mickleburgh and Russell Woodhead

We may all be proud of our National Health Service (even those who want to dismember it would hardly dare to say otherwise) but I wonder how many people now remember that it was Aneurin Bevan who fathered it?

Paramedic Sylvia Green does, though too young to have been there at the time. When we meet her, she tells us that stuck up inside her wardrobe door she’s got “this picture… of Nye Bevan standing on top of a hill… Nye Bevan who built this thing. This heaving monster we call the National Health Service.”

To be honest, we don’t actually meet her, except as a voice on the earphones that each member of the audience wears as they travel around Southwark inside an ambulance in the very site-specific encounter of The Kindness of Strangers.

Sylvie is the ambulance driver and the elder and more experience of the crew. In fact it is her last shift after 45 years in the job and the first for her colleague Lisa, who joins us now in the flesh and helps us out of the old ambulance in which Sylvia started her NHS career and into a modern one.

What follows is their twelve-hour shift compacted into just one hour. Alerts come through from the control centre, such details as are known flashing up on a screen to help readiness, and the team handles each emergency.

While those in the ambulance hear a dialogue of what is happening, one of them is asked to assist. They are not asked to do any medical procedures but a displacement activity, which nevertheless gives a taste of the way in which paramedics have to deal with the unexpected and unusual situations. Meanwhile, the others get a demonstration not just of the medical response but the tact, understanding and consideration that their work demands.

One episode, involving an embarrassed male teenager, does this especially effectively. His dilemma may seem OTT and exceptional but, since I have been told of an almost identical incident by a doctor, I feel sure that this and other emergencies are all based on the company’s research.

As the team travels through the night, the street image projected on the rear doors taking time through evening to lamplight, the long night and then dawn, we hear of Sylvia’s disillusion with what has happened to the Health Service, set against Lisa’s new dedication.

Her frustrations at what she sees as a “sinking ship” fuel her attitude to the novice, but her concern for the NHS is matched by her determination to preserve it as she moves from the front line into administration. Using voice only, Sarah Woodward gives us a real person to warm to, recording and live action and skilfully interwoven. Full marks to SM Emma Nairne if it is she who is doing the cueing.

As in the flesh Lisa, Fiona Drummond (who alternates performances with Emily Lloyd-Saint) could not be more sincere and convincing. Offering assurance in contact with others (including the audience members), there is that undercurrent of nervousness on her first ever shift, not only wanting to do her best for the clients but not wanting to put a foot wrong in front of the old hand.

This is a lovely performance, sustained throughout at the closest of quarters. It is also a reminder that we are not lacking in those who still believe in public service, who want to do something for others. Lisa has had to work hard for her post against considerable competition.

While incident cases are seen outside the ambulance, the only other live character to enter it is Dr Ben Furster (Gareth Taylor, Russell Woodhead and Jack Lowe at some other performances). He is a psychologist, not a medical doctor. He’s there partly to help with the narrative but also to remind us how our lives are connected, though appearances are not chronological, which makes them confusing.

With the actors playing the patients and the other voices, there are a lot of other actors involved here whom director Jack Lowe has used to create a mix of surreal and real from their teamwork.

There is an information overload with attention demanded by live action, recording, video, dialogue heard against radio and other backgrounds adding a further layer but that goes to emphasise how on the ball and response these paramedics must be.

Things will be missed in that overload for inevitably the live presence gains primary attention, but dealing with those many levels is also part of the reality.

Starting from Southwark Playhouse, this performance takes place in an ambulance with 6 performances a day starting at 11AM with the last at 9PM. It lasts 60 minutes.

Originally scheduled until 12 July, the run has now been extended until 16 July.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton