There are few things you can say about the NHS without any fear of contradiction and one is, there aren’t many laughs. Tears, yes. Tears of pain, tears of frustration and tears of anger. Tears of another sort are produced by This May Hurt a Bit; tears of laughter.
As we all know, humour is a powerful weapon, satire a potent tool. Humour wheedles its way into the darkest crevices and can extract the tastiest morsels of truth. We are much more rational beings when laughing than we are when shouting. Hot-headed anger, as we all know, is often counter-productive, making the guilty defensive. There are few ways to defend yourself when somebody is laughing at you.
Stella Feehily’s brilliant This May Hurt a Bit was all about laughs and very funny it was too. But what we were laughing at was not funny. It was the same sort of laughter you get in a cinema during a horror film. It is the laughter of fear when the monster starts severing limbs with a chainsaw – but at least he doesn’t refer you to another monster and there are no waiting lists.
From the opening Yes, Prime Minister scene it was clear where the play was going. Although every line, every situation had something serious to say, each was achieving a laugh. Yes, there are facts and figures woven into the play but one never had the impression was one was being preached at. The truths were hit home with a feather, not a sledgehammer. I particularly liked the presenter giving us a batch of facts and figures as though she was a weather forecaster.
The company of eight, with the exception of the brilliant Stephanie Cole, portrayed dozens of characters and were all excellent. The impressive set was monolithic, rather like the NHS itself. This May Hurt a Bit was a potted history lesson, taking us from the inception of the NHS in 1948, set on bold socialist principles, via Mrs Thatcher to the current day, including such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan and, best of all, the Grim Reaper. But it was all played for laughs and in so doing made its point even stronger.
In four years time the NHS will have been in existence three score years and ten and we all know what that signifies. The Soviet Union had a similar life span and look what happened to that. Perhaps these huge state-run institutions don’t, can’t work any more. Bureaucracy, as it did in the old Eastern Bloc countries, has taken over; operating theatres are being replaced by offices, wards by shopping malls.
There was a line in the play stating the old chestnut about the NHS being the envy of the world – the third world, as some wag pointed out. I heard on the news the other morning that England has fewer hospital beds per capita than any other European country. Maybe, but I bet we’ve got more managers. The NHS is like a huge ship where the aim has become just to keep it afloat and where all thoughts of keeping it on course are gone. The last line of the play is, “We must not give up, we must fight. There is still time.” Hmmm. Perhaps it might be better to put it out of its, and our, misery and start again with a new “model”, as the beloved managers would say.
This May Hurt a Bit manages to be a political rant and an hilarious comedy at the same time -perhaps because they could be taken to be the same thing anyway. This is an amazing, beautifully conceived and executed play. Perhaps its publicity and presentation let it down a bit, but do not be put off. This is good theatre on all levels and deserves to be seen.
This May Hurt a Bit laid bare a patient that we have already seen naked, so there were few shocks or surprises. It just gave us the facts and the feelings in a way that we are unlikely to forget. If it wasn’t so laughable it would be frightening – or should that be the other way round? ★★★★☆ Michael Hasted