Perhaps it takes a stand-up comedian of Mark Thomas’s experience to create a show as perfectly balanced between laugh-a-minute entertainment and hard-edged political commentary as his latest monologue Check Up, designed to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS. For the past year, Thomas has been researching the state of the service, visiting operating theatres, accident & emergency departments and GP surgeries, mainly around London.
Mark Thomas – Check Up: Our NHS at 70, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) ****
Where It Hurts, Summerhall (Venue 26) ***
He has also been interviewing leading figures in health policy; and around the spine of all those conversations, Thomas builds a wonderful tragicomic journey around the NHS of today, never blinking at the failures of a service under pressure, particularly in relation to mental health, but always marvelling at the immense leap of faith and love, and of care for the needs of the ordinary people of Britain, that led to its controversial creation.
In Nicholas Kent’s perfectly pitched production, Thomas is probably at his most hilariously comic in describing his awe-struck visit to an operating theatre, where he meets an immensely theatrical surgeon; at his most politically shocking in his interview with a former boss of the King’s Fund, who says that there was simply no practical healthcare argument for the expensive and ideologically-driven market “reforms” to the English NHS introduced in the Health And Social Care Act of 2012.
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And he is at his most profoundly moving when he talks about the nurses in a dementia ward in west London. At one level, they are just ordinary women doing their job. Yet at another, they are the angels and miracle-makers we often meet when we encounter the NHS; people working for an organisation whose job is to care for everyone, regardless of age, beauty or wealth, and whose magnificent daily response to that challenge has become a vital part of Britain’s culture and identity, fully celebrated here by one of the nation’s great storytellers, in loving, angry and unstoppable form.
The pressures on the 21st century NHS also loom large in the director Jeremy Weller’s latest Grassmarket Project show Where It Hurts, also inspired by the NHS anniversary, and set in the waiting room of a psychiatric unit where 14 non-professional performers, people with experience of mental health problems, play their desperate former selves, crying out for help from a system that often has little to offer.
There are people with drug and drink problems, and legacies of pain left by domestic violence. There is unemployment, divorce and the agony of childlessness; and there is the overlong but significant tale of the psychiatric nurse who finds, one day, that he can no longer do his job, and becomes a patient in his own hospital.
In the end, an NHS psychiatrist offers his thoughts; reflecting the feeling of all the patients that imperfect though our NHS is, the idea of the open door which offers a refuge for everyone and will ask where it hurts even of those whose hurt pervades their whole being, remains a vital one, to be cherished and defended to the last.
• Mark Thomas – Check Up: Our NHS at 70 until 26 August, 10am. Where It Hurts until 26 August, 8:30pm