It'd be nice to go into every show with a completely open mind but inevitably some plays you look forward to more than others. Nina Raine's Tribes
made my top ten of 2010 so her follow-up (although this play was actually written first,) which she also directs, was my first must-see of 2011, especially once you add a great cast with plenty of London stage regulars. Aptly on a day when the NHS has once again been threatened by the current government, Tiger Country
deals with life in an NHS hospital. Continuing Hampstead Theatre's recently-reignited enthusiasm for changing its seating layout, designer Lizzie Clachan's set is a wide traverse, a plain blue hospital floor to accommodate a lot of frenetic action.
This is very much an ensemble piece, the sort of play I think of as a "slice-of-life" play intended to give an overall picture, although as the show goes on you start to get to know the various characters and follow their ongoing storylines (although having seen a lot of the actors many times before, I wonder if it was easier for me to latch on to their characters than it might be for people who were unfamiliar with them.) Our entry point is Emily (Ruth Everett) a young doctor who's just transferred to this hospital to work with her boyfriend, junior surgeon James (Henry Lloyd-Hughes - Posh
and, on TV, The Inbetweeners
.) She's newly-qualified and still gets emotionally involved with her patients, while the more experienced doctors - including her boyfriend - seem callous from her perspective. It's rather a familiar setup but it's handled well, Everett managing to keep our sympathies with a character who threatens to get annoying. Emily's particularly good instincts only delay the first time a patient will die on her, something that paradoxically seems to make it even harder for her to cope when it finally happens. Meanwhile surgeon Vashti (Thusitha Jayasundera - A Day at the Racists
) is having both professional problems, despairing of ever getting promoted, and experiencing life from the other side of things, as her aunt (Harvey Virdi) has a botched operation. Also getting the tables turned is heart surgeon John (Adam James - Now or Later
among others, although you've probably recently seen him on TV as "The Bear" in Miranda
) who's discovered a lump on his neck.
It's ironic that there's a joke at the expense of daytime soap Doctors
because there's undeniably something soapy about the various storylines as outlined above. Fortunately Raine's writing and energetic direction, combined with the quality cast, mean you don't particularly notice it. As I say Emily's storyline does seem overly familiar but I was pleased to notice one hospital drama cliché that wasn't
there, of the grizzled, mean-spirited older surgeon. The closest we come to it is Vashti, and as far as we can tell that's just how arrogant junion surgeon Mark (Pip Carter - umpteen shows at the National) sees her, as the two just don't get on. As far as the political point goes, Raine allows a picture to build up gradually rather than ramming it home, of different departments that just don't cooperate with each other because they're too busy looking out for their own survival. This isn't as strong a play as Tribes
although the energy makes up for a lot, and despite the lack of focus there's still opportunities for some very intimate scenes - for instance Jayasundera and David Cann are very moving in a scene where Vashti tells a patient he's not got long to live. Overall maybe not a classic but one that I think will stick in my memory for the right reasons. (Although: Having a scene where Henry Lloyd-Hughes repeatedly
looks like he's going to take his shirt off but doesn't, officially constitutes cruelty to audiences. As compensation he's in a vest and barefoot in one scene of the second act.)
Oh, also, quick note: When I was there on Monday to see small hours
, the Tiger Country
cast were wandering around the bar, in costume, before the show. I'm guessing this was something being tried out in previews that didn't stick, as it didn't happen tonight.Tiger Country
by Nina Raine is booking until the 5th of February at the Hampstead Theatre.