The series of monologues under the collective title The Greatest Wealth was first performed at The Old Vic Theatre in 2018 as part of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS. With the huge debt the country owes to its workers this year, the videos have now been fittingly reissued as a series with a new coda bringing things right up to date. Each decade is represented by a short monologue play of less than half an hour and following the series through chronologically provides a fascinating dissection of the NHS but also of the fluctuating fortunes of the country as a whole.
The first two plays concentrate on the end users. Deaf actor Sophie Stone shows how much of an immediate difference was made to the lives of hearing-impaired people by the NHS’s foundation as her character gets her first hearing aid. The piece mirrors the optimism of the times as it is upbeat in tone and has a positive and touching outcome. The second play takes a broader approach (and actually departs a little from the brief) by examining the various times across many decades that the NHS rides to the rescue throughout the central character’s lifetime. David Threlfall excels, creating a credible character very quickly as he follows the trajectory of one man’s intersection with the institution. The ending of this play is particularly interesting as it projects forward to a supposed future where the NHS has been dismantled and private enterprise has taken over – the picture is not an encouraging one.
The next four monologues concentrate on various service deliverers ( a midwife, a sister, a surgeon and a nurse) and contain probably the best two pieces in the series. Meera Syal both writes and delivers (a monologue and a baby) as a midwife of Indian heritage who comes to Britain in the wake of Enoch Powell’s invitation to help staff the still fledgling service in the 1960s. Although she is good at her job, she is abused because of the colour of her skin but remains undaunted. This is the most robustly funny episode and delivered with an assurance of touch that comes from a writer also performing her own words.
The other winner amongst this central section is Art Malik’s surgeon, also of Indian extraction, who coaches an unseen Australian medic through the intricacies of a hip replacement they are performing the following day. In between the operation details (I learned a lot) we also get a glimpse into the surgeon’s life and how he has ended up where he is. Malik has a similar lightness of touch to Syal which keeps his monologue interesting from start to finish. It is notable in this middle quartet that the heritage of all the characters comes from beyond the British Isles (the other two are Irish and Ghanaian) suggesting, as if it were easy to forget, that the NHS is admired world wide and that we owe a debt to the support it has received over the years from the many nationalities that have staffed it.
Following the story of another beneficiary who uses a wheelchair, the last two pieces take a slightly different tack. The original last piece is effectively a mini musical in which the spirit of the NHS (pronounced “Nuchess”) provides a summary of the 70 years of the institution and both celebrates its achievements while showing concern for the future. The recently added coda is a towering and heartfelt performance from Sharon D. Clarke as another embodiment of the NHS, issuing a stark warning of how things will be if certain trends are not reversed.
This powerful set of monologues is well written, very well performed and simply and powerfully directed by Adrian Lester; indeed there is not a dud piece in the pack. They pay tribute to a great idea which has reached something of a crossroads and should be required viewing for politicians of all persuasions. If nothing else they would do well to heed the motto that is encapsulated in the coda’s title – First, Do No Harm.