This May Hurt a Bit, St James Theatre, London – review

On his return to directing a few years ago, Max Stafford-Clark remarked self-mockingly, “If things seem a bit static stage left, it’s because that’s my blind side since the stroke.” Stafford-Clark’s, and his partner Stella Feehily’s, experiences during his treatment for that stroke are a major inspiration for Feehily’s play, an impassioned piece of agitprop for the preservation of the National Health Service as we know it. So you could say it’s quite active stage left in political terms. However, the case it makes is that a free, tax-funded NHS isn’t radical at all, but has for 65 years been part of the mainstream of British political consciousness.

Agitprop is more about picking an argument than marshalling one; about dust-up, not debate. Nevertheless, Feehily knows that in this matter a shrill voice will be dismissed, so she keeps things articulate if not always polite; a routine about the mounting debt from Private Finance Initiative health projects ends with the simple question to the audience, “Why aren’t you angry?” The first significant NHS depredations are dated here to the Thatcher era, and so Winston Churchill and NHS-founding health minister Aneurin Bevan, brought back from the grave for a couple of spirited if predictable debates, find common cause in their horror of a squawking budgie named, symbolically, Maggie.

To forestall fears of placard-waving or barricade-building, the narrative side of things centres on an ageing, middle-class family led by the urbane Brian Protheroe and, as his mother, the venerable but no-nonsense Stephanie Cole. Their experiences in the hospital portrayed onstage are frankly patchy, sometimes downright shocking, but still embody the embattled yet perseverant spirit of universal social medicine. The personification of the NHS may be on a stretcher in a couple of scenes, but the Grim Reaper (yes, he gets to dispense his twopennyworth too) hasn’t wheeled her off yet.

Stafford-Clark choreographs his cast of eight with all the expertise one expects from someone with such a long and influential history of shaping research material into drama during rehearsals. The switches between narrative, breakout scenes straight to the audience and even musical routines are smooth and assured; everything is in the service of the play, and through that, of the argument. It makes for two tightly-packed hours of dynamic, urgent theatre in a dynamic, urgent cause.

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