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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Genevieve O‚ÄôReilly and Tom Burke/ Ph: Johan Persson

Anyone who saw the Olympic opening ceremony, with nurses dancing their tribute to Britain's National Health Service, will be primed for this revival of George Bernard Shaw's 1906 morality tale. They would have got a sense of just how important universal health care is to a country that created a health system on the principle that treatment should be made on clinical grounds only and free at the point of delivery.

So in that context, the dilemma with which Shaw's eponymous doctor struggles carries an extra relevance for British audiences. And Nadia Fall's unfussy production feels perfectly timed.

The doctor in question is the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillet), whose treatment for tuberculosis is the most promising development in medicine in years. Taking on any new patients at his already oversubscribed London surgery is out of the question, until the fragrant Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) comes calling. Her dying young husband is a brilliant artist. Surely Sir Colenso can see that this is a man worth saving? And she's right. He can. Just one look at those drawings and Colenso is convinced that saving the artist will justify bumping one of his current patients off his life-saving treatment. There just isn't the capacity to cure more than a very limited number of people, you see.

Jennifer and her husband are invited to dinner with Sir Colenso and his peers, where it will be decided if her husband is worthy of their treatment. And what a pompous, self-serving bunch they are. As they discuss medical techniques, each of them reveals a track record of losing patients to practises that they don't fully understand. The hilariously arrogant surgeon Cutler Walpole (Robert Portal) for example, puts practically every ailment known to man down to blood poisoning, which can be cured through the removal of something called the nuciform sac. Meanwhile, the hilariously pompous Sir Ralph Bonnington (Malcolm Sinclair) is all for “stimulating the phagocytes,” whatever they are.

Much of this will be familiar to those with a jaundiced view of the medical establishment. But it's the issue of access to health care, dramatically encapsulated here by the notion that there was a time when morally dubious doctors made decisions about whether their patients deserve to be saved, that carries such weight here. And Shaw loads the dice further by giving Sir Colenso a vested interest in the case – if Jennifer's husband dies, he is resolved to marry the widow.

Fall wisely does nothing to distract from the thrillingly articulate eloquence of Shaw's arguments. Peter McKintosh's sets of the traditional realism kind – from the oak-paneled splendour of Sir Colenso's consulting room to the artist's garret in which Dubedat (Tom Burke) reveals the doctors' hypocrisy when judging his own caddish behaviour. And the director rightly realises that Shaw's point is not just about health care, but the self-serving and self-regulating power of a profession upon which we all depend at one time or another. 

To that end, the cast gets full licence to deliver pomposity and arrogance to the max, qualities that Sinclair's Sir Ralph infuriatingly combines with incompetence. There's good work too from David Calder as Sir Colenso's moral compass and confidant. But of course none of these professionals criticise each other too harshly, no matter what the mortality rate of their patients. And on that level, the play not only serves as a warning against undermining the NHS (always a political hot potato in Britain), but a satire on today's medical establishment, which has been accused of sometimes putting the interests of doctors before patients.


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