Lockdown reviews: Check-up: Our NHS @ 70

“It doesn’t matter who you are. As soon as you walk in through the doors, they hit you with the best they’ve got”.

This show by political comedian Mark Thomas takes a long, hard look at our National Health Service in its seventieth year of operation. He shadowed medics and interviewed clinical experts, economists and politicians to bring together an hour of statistics, opinion and reflection.

In this time of pandemic crisis the NHS is facing its biggest trial. Check-up: Our NHS @ 70 has been made available to download for whatever donation you see fit, with monies going to the service itself. It is both a celebration and a criticism of a service which has been crippled by underinvestment and the introduction of private enterprise.

The “Herculean efforts” of surgeons, doctors and nurses is praised, and the black humour they rely upon to get through a tough job is noted. Statistics about cancer survival rates are mentioned: the UK is towards the end of the list of countries despite our relative wealth.

Image by Sid Scott

“We are the Jedward of cancer!” Thomas despairs of a service in which 1 out of 5 cases are only diagnosed if a patient presents at A&E with unrelated symptoms. But he also notes the 2% of the NHS budget which goes on the tender process to make the service more “competitive”.

Also in the headlights in this perceptive show are the differences in NHS Scotland (which not only threw out private contracts, but also has free prescriptions and hospital parking). Taxation, too, which has hardly risen in real terms when the service desperately needs an effective funding model.

Thomas argues the right-wing press controls the narrative of the NHS being an unsustainable money pit, but posits that this pit is one we are “all in, with our health, forever”. It’s a potent argument, and this show crafts a compelling perspective through the use of interview clips, verbatim discussions, and now and again a scene which pulls you up short – the obese man about to have gastric surgery who wants “a normal relationship with my daughter, who worries I am going to die”.

Image by Jane Hobson

The clips of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony (“making the NHS centre stage of our cultural identity”) rub shoulders awkwardly with life expectancy figures (“if you travel east from Holborn, you lose a year of life at each tube stop”). Inequalities of class, finance, and an accident of birth. An NHS reorganised into catastrophe by health secretaries Lansley and Hunt.

“The NHS doesn’t just treat illness. It fights fear.”

Thomas mimics washing his hands between scenes: a reminder watching this a year after recording, when this activity literally saves lives, that even the most routine of tasks can lead to a reduction of pressure on a service buckling at the seams but still “free at the point of use”. It is also a damning metaphor for an uncaring government.

Filmed at the Theatre Royal in Wakefield in April 2019, this show has video/set/lighting design by Jon Driscoll and sound design by Helen Atkinson. The live show was directed by Nicolas Kent, this recording by Chris Evans.

At the time of writing, Check-up: Our NHS @ 70 is available at Go Faster Stripe, along with some of the supporting interviews. You can donate any amount you see fit.