I’m a big fan of John Godber – his dark, dry wit, his keen eye for the absurd, his left-wing sensibilities. Sadly, though, I have to report that his latest play, This Might Hurt, falls somewhat short of the mark.
York Theatre Royal
Till Sat Oct 22
The three cast members are excellent. Robert Angell plays both urbane actor Jack Skipton, and his 81-year-old Aunty Betty.
He dons a headscarf for the latter, but this is really not needed – it is absolutely clear from his body language and the rhythms of his speech which character is which.
Rachael Abbey and Josie Morley play every other character in the 90-minute play – almost 30 of them. Their performances are equally impressive, as their line delivery and way of moving give each character a distinct personality.
The minimal set by Foxton is complemented by the versatile lighting design of Graham Kirk, clearly creating a number of different locations.
So far, so good. Why was I ultimately disappointed?
Rich source for satire
Certainly the NHS and the social care system can be rich sources for satire. As a regular and frequent end user of both, I am far from blind to their shortcomings, as cut after cut bites deeper.
I agree completely with Godber’s thesis that the entire system is fracturing under the strain. What I take issue with is the simplistic, rather black and white portrayal in this play.
The first half sees main character Jack Skipton in hospital with a pulmonary embolism. He receives, by and large, excellent treatment. The second half, with Skipton still recovering, contrasts this treatment with that received by his Aunty Betty, following her diagnosis with inoperable cancer.
The difference between their two experiences is so marked as to be almost implausible. I found myself wondering whether this is due to the first half being based on Godber’s experiences over 20 years ago, while the second portrays events within the last two or three years.
The story of Aunty Betty’s rapid decline, seemingly abandoned by her consultant, never actually learning her diagnosis, is truly heartbreaking and all too plausible. Communications between sections of the system break down, leaving her without essential equipment and pain relief.
My family understands these experiences all too well, and I would never dare to suggest that Godber is drawing on anything other than true events.
That being said, I have to note that he must have been very unlucky with the care company allocated to his aunt. I have been looked after by care companies ranging from the criminally useless to the really impressive, and I have never known or heard of carers coming into a client’s house and demanding that the client’s family get them tea and biscuits.
I also know no care company where the carers aren’t trained to give medication.
The revelation that the carers have hard lives too is very clumsily handled, and feels almost bolted-on. His complaint about their having had a cigarette before coming into the call is just petty.
I was also left very uncomfortable at Godber’s treatment both of two nurses and of two fellow patients, in the first act. In both scenes, he seems to be painting with a very broad brush, sailing perilously close to poking fun at them.
In contrast with other characters, these four are given sing-song, utterly caricature Yorkshire accents, and lines of such banality that the overriding impression given is of their sheer stupidity.
The relentless insistence on labelling the geographic origin of every doctor and nurse became something akin to tub-thumping, and I got to the end of the play wondering if it would have been simpler to have replaced the cast with a banner reading ”The NHS is in crisis!” for an hour and a half.
This play began as a 50-minute account of his and his aunt’s experiences. Although it took Godber two years to rewrite it as a 90-minute two-act piece, I think it still needs more length in which to mesh the events with the politics. As it stands, this isn’t so much a play as a polemic.