An Act Care is an hour long, imagined chance encounter between Aneurin (Nye) Bevan (played by Seren Vickers) and his realised version of the NHS, 72 years after its inception. Bevan, often regarded as the founder of the NHS, was born in 1897. The son of a working-class Welsh coal miner who, against seemingly insurmountable odds, was part of a post-war Attlee Labour government that delivered universal health care, free at the point of contact.
While this sounds like a party-political broadcast – it’s not. The show, described as a new punk gig theatre piece, storms into its opening song: ‘The NHS Belongs to the People’. A cast of six form an on-stage band, playing drums, bass and guitar. They’re dressed in blue hospital garb and quickly set the scene. Behind them the backdrop of Bevan and Jeremy Hunt (political and arguably principled polar opposites) disappears and NHS waiting time statistics are displayed as we progress through the years.
The show started life as a project at Salford Lads and Girls Club, talking to the public about what the NHS means to them, and evolved to include a range of people who use and work in the NHS up and down the country.
What is refreshing about the show’s take on the ‘state of the NHS’ is its inclusion of the ‘Smiling Sam’ plot line. Sam (Tomi Ogbard) the self-proclaimed ‘friendly neighbourhood socialist’ is the beating heart of today’s NHS. He, by his own admission, isn’t always great to be around. But, amid ever increasing cuts and patient admissions; double shifts; and cancelled holidays, he finds a way to carry on.
Sam is a second-generation immigrant (Nigerian) and because of an issue with his grandmother’s migration to the UK he now faces deportation. This added drama is used as a counterpoint to Nye’s struggle decades earlier. Through music and drama, we see a young Nye, being bullied growing up because of his stammer. We are introduced to his father, who very early on is imbued with a sense of the injustice life has dealt the working classes. He plants a seed in Nye’s head to fight for what’s right.
Bevan and Sam circle each other musically and metaphorically as the plot unfolds; each taking turns to sing powerful and poignant solo numbers that beautifully showcase their vocal and acting talents. There are many touching moments during this performance as we’re shown, through song, just how precarious the NHS’ position is today. Perhaps the most touching, however, is the least expected – for me it was when Nye and Sam meet. Both beset with the realities of our stretched NHS. Nye reaches out to Sam and says: ‘You’re just like me, you’ve given everything’.
For a ‘work in progress’, this is a solid performance piece. Its breadth is vast and clever as it aims to encapsulate more than 80 years of ‘people’s history’ into an 18-hour hospital shift. Lyrics by Laurence Young in songs like Father’s Lament/Minor’s Lament; Love is a Gateway Drug; Money Money Money (not the ABBA version); and Dragon Boy display encapsulate a wide range of influences and emotions triggered by the drama portrayed on stage. At the end, the cast request feedback on how they could improve the piece – my humble advice: ‘Keep up the good work’.