This May Hurt a Bit

Issue section: 

On tour until 21 June

This is a play unashamed to convey an urgent message. Always politically contested, charged with determination, goodwill and wry humour, always short of resources - the audacity and optimism of the National Health Service project itself are reflected by the structure and presentation of the play.

The cast of eight skilfully swap between characters we recognise and some developed for the story.

The simple set is quickly changed from hospital consulting room, to waiting room, to ward, to sitting room. Aneurin Bevan and Winston Churchill drop by during a family argument. Bevan speaks to the House, his Valleys accent holding hints of the stammer he controlled by hurling himself into polemic.

Scenes are interrupted to bring us information about cuts, targets and privatisation. As with many hospital dramas the ultimate dramatic tension is the risk of death - represented here by the Grim Reaper waiting ominously for the demise of the NHS...and of us all.

It does hurt a bit too. The vision of 1948 quickly moves forward to 2011 and plans for the Health and Social Care Act. The device of a knowing senior civil servant is used to explain the political background while making us laugh. As an NHS campaigner, I watched with admiration an exposition of all the issues and statistics I have tried to fit into leaflets and conversations.

I was left a bit uncomfortable by the believable portrayal of an unsympathetic outpatient doctor interested in promoting his private health schemes and by the disconnect between his disgruntled nursing assistant and an impassioned campaigner. A question is left hanging: do only retired Guardian readers care?

At the interval, however, I found the audience around me - full of NHS workers and friends - enthused and discussing their experiences and concerns. By the second half we were seeing the NHS we are proud to recognise: the NHS of different accents and backgrounds; of calm respect for the individual patient, however ill or confused; and of cool-headed efficiency in an emergency.

All this is confidently brought to life by the actors. My favourite brief moment was the the proud and brisk walk of the young doctor answering a crash call. Also popular with the audience was the young Eastern European nurse on a short staffed ward who nearly loses her "patience", taking us with her in her brief anguish and then her decision to stay.

The play is the start of a discussion. Leafleted as I left, I was able to share my views on defending national pay to keep a national service, and on the strike of privatised workers in Ealing who demanded parity and won.