Most of us hope devoutly never to end up in the back of an ambulance, but Curious Directive’s new show actively encourages us to climb aboard. The Kindness of Strangers, written by Jack Lowe and Russell Woodhead, takes place inside a moving ambulance (small capacity means there are several shows a day). We accompany Lisa, a newly qualified paramedic, on her first shift: she, along with the audience, wearing headphones, set off in nervous anticipation. The discarded paraphernalia under the stretcher and blood stains on the wall are not encouraging.
But although there is anger, passion and alarm here, this is a gentle, moving show. As the long night shift ticks by, Lisa chats to and quarrels with her partner for the night: gritty old-timer Sylvia. We never see Sylvia (Sarah Woodward), only hear her through our headphones, as she laments the decline of the National Health Service and the strain on its noble aims. But while Sylvia is as tough as the old boots she wears for protection, when she is dealing with patients she reveals level-headed tact, intuition and tenderness.
And indeed this is what the piece celebrates. It’s not the political discussions that make an impression (in fact some of them feel rather engineered and awkwardly manoeuvred into the text), but the significance of a job entirely composed of helping strangers in extremis. As the ambulance lurches along, the relative calm is punctuated by sudden urgent requests on a screen: “Priority Red. You are responding to a patient who may have suffered a heart attack … ” Each crisis is detailed to us through the headphones, while the ambulance stops and one audience member has to climb out and deal with a situation. It would be unfair to reveal what these encounters entail – suffice to say you won’t be called on to do your emergency tracheotomy, but each stop links to what you hear and each tangibly involves you in helping an incapacitated stranger.
The climax is rather melodramatic, but the piece, directed by Lowe, skilfully interweaves live and recorded material and the two main actors I saw (Emily Lloyd-Saini and Russell Woodhead) forged a ready bond with the audience. Above all, it fosters even greater respect for those people who go out to work prepared to face what may be the most heart-rending or terrifying moments in strangers’ lives. On the way back from the show I watched a real ambulance on call with renewed admiration.