For years one of the most discreetly significant strands of subsidy in British theatre has been the long-running episodic television series, which enables scores of actors and numerous writers to earn a few quid for a quick guest spot until the next “proper” engagement comes along. With the demise of The Bill, these series are almost exclusively medical-based. Eight of the 11 actors in Nina Raine’s latest play have appeared on one or more of Casualty, Holby City and Doctors. The genre permeates both play and production. It is not simply that this is a drama set in a hospital, with storylines centred more on staff than patients; Raine acknowledges the correspondences by making one of those patients the star of such a series.
The characters and plots are also immediately familiar, even if you’ve hardly ever watched these programmes. There is the newly qualified, idealistic doctor (Ruth Everett), the senior and junior martinets who rub everybody up the wrong way (Thusitha Jayasundera and Pip Carter), the turbulent staff romance (Everett and Henry Lloyd-Hughes), the surgeon whose relative is a patient (Jayasundera), the surgeon who falls ill (Adam James) ... which pretty much leaves Nicolas Tennant as the reliable one.
Raine directs her own script with fluidity and efficiency, especially in a not-quite-chaotic opening scene of overlapping activity. Her traverse staging is also the first time I can recall the Hampstead Theatre being fundamentally reconfigured. The subcontinental motif of the title (one surgeon uses the phrase to describe “sticking a knife in close to an artery”) runs through the evening, with a registrar and a theatre sister of Indian extraction and between-scenes music of tablas and padhant. Raine writes with intelligence and sensitivity, and uses her extensive research well, although she grows a little conspicuously writerly in the final scenes when medical terms are used time and again to describe personal sensations and emotions.
It is hard to see why she chose such a subject for her third play, for it never shakes off the feeling of being a superior, staged hospital TV drama. Perhaps in part she simply wanted to see how much she could do with such a classic genre. The answer is a great deal, but still not enough.