Performed to a public audience for the first time at HOME Theatre’s PUSH festival, An Act of Care is Manchester-based theatre collective archipelago’s tribute to Britain’s National Health Service.
Written by Rosie Macpherson and directed by Laurence Young, An Act of Care is fiercely political, time-travelling between the creation of the NHS and its present-day struggle. As stories are interwoven, the different narratives surrounding Britain’s healthcare service fight for dominance. The story of Aneurin Bevan (Seren Vickers), the Labour politician who fought for the establishment of the NHS in 1948, plays out next to the story of a character only referred to as ‘Smiling Sam’ (Tomi Ogbaro), an NHS nurse in Trafford General Hospital on the night of the performance, 28th January 2020.
The performance uses punk music to set the scene, capturing the pride that the British public have for the NHS, along with the anger about what is happening to it. Austerity, inequality, and the hostile environment are all themes that the play explores through various songs and characters. Throughout the performance, the audience is reminded that the fight for healthcare is an intersectional one; identity is explored alongside the struggle of both NHS workers and service users to be treated fairly.
The story of Aneurin Bevan takes us from the coalfield in Wales to the House of Commons, from classrooms to the picket lines. Interspaced with Smiling Sam’s twelve-hour shift, the two stories regularly come into contact. Instead of playing out side-by-side, the two timelines interact with each other, pulling the audience from scene to scene, irrespective of a chronological series of events.
The dynamic between the characters was captivating; Bevan’s relevance to the lives of everyday NHS workers and users is questioned through the character of Smiling Sam and the hospital staff. Busy with an ever-increasing patient list, they had no time for the speeches and rallies Bevan kept introducing into the narrative. Often Bevan’s story was interrupted by the sound of beeping and machinery, as he was ushered away in order for Smiling Sam to take care of patients.
Although the two timelines span vastly different timescales, Smiling Sam’s twelve hour shift is far more fast-paced and frantic, a projected screen on the stage informing the audience how far into the shift we are and how long the hospital waiting time currently is. As Bevan’s story progresses through fifty years of the history of the NHS, the waiting time rises higher and higher for Smiling Sam.
Performed with a cast of four, a minimal set design, and limited technical aspects, An Act of Care had all of the energy and momentum of a huge production. This was sustained throughout the performance, the consistently frantic pace highlighting the moments when everything slowed to a halt, only to speed back up as the music invigorated and revived the fight. One of the highlights of the performance came with a rare dip into the future; the year is 2021 and the guitar riffs become angrier as the performers sing about the selling off of the NHS in Brexit trade deals and the slow, subtle privatisation to follow.
An Act of Care is a cleverly conceived show that attempts to reconcile Britain’s proud history of the NHS with the reality of its current service and daunting future prospects. Despite the strong political messages and rallying calls to arms, the performance remains a love letter to the existence of the NHS.
Moving through the past, present, and future of Britain’s health service, it invites us to think about where we were before the NHS – and by doing so, shows us why we must fight like hell to save it. For all of the anger, rage, and frustration, An Act of Care is fundamentally a play about the importance of caring for one another, and more specifically, the importance of caring about caring for one another.