Baron’s Court Theatre, London – until 26 February 2017
Emily (Makenna Guyler) ends up coated in blood, sick and who knows what other fluids, her hair dishevelled and her plucky energy at rock bottom. She’s a newly qualified nurse, working in ITU under exceptional pressure, in unacceptable conditions and with no-one to turn to for comfort, advice or to get things off her chest. Sally (Stephanie Silver) slowly squirts more and more blood onto her once perfect scrubs, pulls her hair out of the precisely formed bun. She is the ward sister, 8 years’ experience of the day in, day out stresses of the job. She doesn’t set out to make Emily’s life a misery, she’s there to be her mentor – emotional empathy not one of her strong suits it appears. Toughen up, that’s all that’s needed. Apparently not.
The Monologues Of A Tired Nurse, written by Stephanie Silver, is a stark observation of the conditions that NHS staff face every day. On the ITU ward, the pressure is more intense, the stakes higher. Newly qualified staff are thrown in the deep end – the ward is understaffed, so no one can afford the softly, softly approach. Emily’s naïve initial energy quickly dissipates, she doubts her ability, double guesses herself and loses a patient. But that’s life (ironically), isn’t it? All nurses will lose people at some point. Sally is more pragmatic, shakes herself off and ploughs on. A coping mechanism, a survival technique that Emily has never learnt, never been taught when growing up.
Silver’s writing has thought-provoking aspects and some intriguing insights. The sterile hospital bed curtains and pulsating music add to the atmosphere, one that seems bleak and exhausting. The background music cuts off abruptly to force the audience back into the moment, an effect that is perhaps more accidental than intentional. The exchanges are often awkward and stilted, the acting stiff and too obvious. Guyler is too peppy, too positive at first; Silver trips over lines and doesn’t come off detached enough. As the show progresses, the performers seem to hit their stride, a more fluid and natural portrayal as the insecurities and moments of self-doubt creep in. Guyler commits to the moment, doesn’t break character as often – a more emotional delivery.
Tempers fray; patience wears thin; the shifts drag on, unrelenting and unending. In the end, the tears are real, raw and hurtful, full of pain and sorrow. These last, these linger. Both actors are broken, resigned to their fate. This is the reality of a system pushed to breaking point – these are the people on a low wage with little training that are forced to take life into their own hands. Some are strong enough, some can’t take the pressure. The machine grinds on.