REVIEW: Mark Thomas's one-man play about the NHS packs a punch hard enough to restart the heart - Cambridge Junction February 12
PUBLISHED: 22:01 14 February 2019 | UPDATED: 22:20 14 February 2019
Mark Thomas's latest show about the current state of the NHS went down so well on February 12 at Cambridge Junction that the audience applauded after every riff. They didn't wait till the end.
Mark Thomas’s latest show about the current state of the NHS went down so well on February 12 at Cambridge Junction that the audience applauded after every riff. They didn’t wait till the end.
It is certainly funny. He is a master of delivery and a magician with timing. No other performer has his conviction and such energy. But for me, the laughter was through tears.
This is stand-up meets Ken Loach. Health Service Come Home.
(Loach’s 1966 television drama, Cathy Come Home about a homeless young family, broke the heart of the nation. Every scene was memorable. I can still describe them over 50 years on, but most heart-wrenching was Cathy sitting on a bench at a railway station, screaming: “Not my kids...don’t take my kids” as her children are taken into care.
Mark Thomas’s show has been two years in the making. At no point does he have anything but praise for the people who work in the NHS. He has interviewed - as public interviews - medics at every level, people who fund the NHS, statisticians, politicians, patients and academics. What he attacks - and his show certainly has plenty of attack - is how successive government lunacy has plunged the NHS in debt and tied it up in chains.
The show opens with Pathe News, historical newsreel of the public being informed in 1948, that a leaflet would be coming through the door: “One day soon, or maybe you’ve already had your copy: Read it carefully. It tells you what the new National Health Service is.”
Thomas says: “My mum remembers seeing that. She remembers the creation of the NHS, she says: “Your nan was thrilled.”
His grandmother came from a mining family in North Seaton.
“Her family would save a penny a week in a cup on the shelf for the doctor and if a child was ill, there was a discussion about whether they should call the doctor and spend the money or save it until someone else was worse.”
Thomas reminds us that Nye Bevan, the founder of the NHS, said it was created “In place of fear”.
This one-man play, directed by Cambridge graduate, Nicholas Kent, is structured so that Thomas, 55, journeys through levels of the NHS. He begins by asking a GP which illnesses could befall him. The answer is “Everything. The only things you don’t have to worry about are milk teeth and the menopause.”
The doctor’s advice is: “You want to die quick, get run over by a lorry or have a massive heart-attack.”
Thomas then describes his time shadowing a surgeon in A&E, seeing people arrive bleeding, following them into the operating theatre, watching what happens in there and now the pace of his delivery is so fast and frenetic that you think, he’s going to get his wish and have that heart attack right here.
He has gone into into hospital wards. He describes the silence of the kidney dialysis room, the confusion in the dementia ward. He experiences the NHS first-hand.
The research for the show is also based on his series of video taped public interviews and the first one he shows is with Professor Michael Marmot, author of a report on health inequalities.
Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, tells him: “The things that affect health outcomes are housing, education, job insecurity, poor diet, anxiety.”
Or as Gordon Brown put it: “If you got on the Central Line at Holborn and headed east, life expectancy goes down by one year for every stop.”
Thomas’s biggest targets are the mistakes (or deliberate sabotage) of successive governments, Labour and Conservative, impacting how the NHS is run and structured.
He asks Frank Dobson, Labour Health Minister under Tony Blair: “What is your biggest regret?”
The answer: “Oh without a doubt PFI.”
The Private Finance Initiative funded the building of 103 hospitals, giving those private companies up to 70 per cent profit.
“On a virtually risk-free investment. Quite how you F--K up a contract like that, I do not know - but Carillion did. They have gone bankrupt halfway through two new hospital builds, Liverpool and Birmingham - and once again, the taxpayer has to bail out the failure of the private sector.”
He plays the video of Dobson’s “biggest regret” to the audience three times, to make sure we have heard it, pointing out that today, it costs the NHS £2 billion a year to fund this PFI debt.
It costs another £2-£3 billion a year to run the NHS’s internal and external markets. Thomas says Conservative Health Minister, Andrew Lansley “passed the biggest piece of legislation to be enacted upon the NHS since it was formed.”
Thomas says Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act 2012: “Abolishes the entire existing structure of the NHS. 170 organisations are shut, over 240 new ones created, over 10,000 people made redundant.
“The government has set the NHS against itself in the way they did with the railways. One part of the NHS is the commissioner, the other bits compete against each other for the contracts. And now Lansley opens the door to ‘any willing provider’ so not only does the NHS have to compete in an internal market, they have to compete in an open market with the likes of Virgin Healthcare.”
These bids have to be assessed and supervised and that costs money.
He asked Professor Chris Ham, the chief executive of The King’s Fund, what benefits there are to Lansley’s reforms and Ham says: “None.”
So, says Thomas: “Next time a politician talks about inefficency in the NHS, tell them that the inefficiency lies in the structure they created and voted for.”
Mark Thomas: Check-Up Our NHS @ 70 is at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on February 20, The Stables, Milton Keynes, March 21, Broadway Cinema, Letchworth Garden City, March 26, Hertford Theatre, March 27, Norwich Playhouse, March 28, Colchester Arts, April 4, Battersea Arts Centre, London, April 23.