“This May Hurt A Bit” at the St James Theatre

If you are in any doubt as to the current state of the NHS, then Stella Feehily’s new play, This May Hurt A Bit, will cure you of that. Just opened at the St James Theatre, this is one of the most overtly political works I’ve seen in a long time and, as such, has to come with a contraindication: for all its important messages, it makes fairly exhausting watching.

Entertaining the audience isn’t the primary aim, of course. And, awash with educational facts and figures, too much of This May Hurt A Bit is depressingly predictable, with A&E closures and PFI rip-offs culminating in the disastrous Health and Social Care Act of last year. To compensate, Feehily and master-director Max Stafford-Clark fill the play with angry humour and ingenious touches. Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan have a heated debate, while Margaret Thatcher and the Grim Reaper make surprise guest appearances. Audience interventions and a couple of dance numbers also keep us on our toes.

And the cast is great. Taking on several roles each, Tristram Wymark and Hywel Morgan excel as the elder statesmen commenting on current events, while Stephanie Cole is in a league of her own as a patient, adding a much needed human aspect to the debate. But here’s the problem – for all Stafford-Clark’s technical ability, there’s little in the way of emotional punch. Worse still, Feehily’s understandable anger starts to grate. There are plenty of fingers pointed, but positive solutions seem tacked on and the argument is so one-sided it becomes alienating.

While Feehily’s conviction is admirable, it isn’t contagious, and this play is no antidote to apathy. Which is a shame since this very problem is highlighted when charcters directly challenge the audience – “Why aren’t you angry?” So here’s a suggestion. If it takes seeing This May Hurt A Bit to get you to write to your MP and join the campaign to save the NHS, then by all means see it. Otherwise, just stay at home and write anyway. I am off to do that right now, which is surely the ultimate praise for the play’s spirit, if not its execution.

Until 21 June 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by John Haynes

Written 20 May 2014 for The London Magazine

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