Tiger Country

Nina Raine
Hampstead Theatre
(2011)

Tiger Country publicity image

If Microsoft ever take TV's Casualty and adapt it for the Xbox 360, the resulting output could well be like large parts of Tiger Country.

Nina Raine's latest play is set in an Accident and Emergency Ward of a busy NHS hospital where, almost always, things go wrong. The pacing is as breathless as the patients, with many scenes lasting little more than a minute or two, meaning that much ground is covered in only 2¼ hours during which twenty or more characters, played by fifteen actors, appear.

With so much going on, it can be hard to identify the central characters but these turn out to be two very determined, some would say bloody-minded, female doctors.

Emily, played by Ruth Everett, is a 24-year-old newbie doctor who suffers from a rare and unfortunate disease for someone in her job, perfectionism. She also has a way with a hunch, which soon gets the lady identified as a coming star but also a troublemaker.

If there is an arc running through this play it is that of Emily, who swiftly loses her idealism to tiredness and eventually, in a somewhat far-fetched scene, spends valuable minutes trying to revive a dead girl when, if everything else in the play is to be believed, twenty other patients need treating.

She eventually reaches closure but only after cheating on a boyfriend and then achieving a significant change of character in the cathartic final scene.

Emily can easily be compared and contrasted with the other leading female, Thusitha Jayasundera's Vashti. She has been around the block far more times but suffers equally from the patronisation of women, exacerbated by her Indian ancestry.

To be fair to those that cannot stand her, Vashti is a complete bitch in the operating theatre although she is seen more sympathetically later in the play. By that stage, she has donned human garb and become one of those hospital hazards, "a relative". Eventually, she is left to make a decision between humanity and career development.

She is also the central character in a deeply moving penultimate scene when she and a highly supportive nurse must tell a tearful David Cann, playing a lovable soap actor (is that an oxymoron?), that his cancer treatment is not going as well as desired.

This is one of the play's high points, as the writer shows a flash of the compassion that was the strength of her last play, Tribes, seen Downstairs at the Royal Court late in 2010.

Before that, Miss Raine has taken us on a chase through the hairy times that face young doctors, who seemingly have to make numerous life and death decisions on the instant night after night. This gives us ample opportunity to witness operations generally going wrong, patients suffering and doctors bickering and backbiting.

In addition to those already named, Adam James gives a convincing performance as John, a heart specialist who goes into cowardly denial on discovering a potentially cancerous lump on his own neck.

Nina Raine who also directs a staging using a wide, empty traverse, marshals her forces expertly in what could be a tricky space.

One thing that you learn long before you leave the theatre is to take the greatest care on the way home. If A & E is really like this, you don't want to go there.

Truly this is theatre for the Xbox generation, with the shortest of attention spans being adequate for 90% of the action and disasters falling over each other to grab their two or three minutes of fame. While, like all of the best hospital dramas, the result can be highly entertaining, it does little for character development.

Playing to 5 February

Reviewer: Philip Fisher