at the Lyttelton Theatre, Saturday 21st July 2012
*The performance reviewed was a late preview”
Watching Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma on the same day as Joe Penhall’s Birthday is incredibly fitting; both plays ask questions about the need for a non-privatised health service and the way in which is should be run. But whilst Penhall’s play manages to make us laugh and think about the deconstruction of the NHS simultaneously, Nadia Fall’s production of Shaw’s play does neither.
Colenso Ridgeon is a doctor, newly knighted for his discovery of how to treat tuberculosis, and busy with sick patients he has to cure (though we never see them and they’re only mentioned in passing). His friends are all idiots; Leo Schutzmacher, Patrick Cullen, Cutler Walpole, Ralph Bloomfield Bonington and Dr Blenkinsop. All of them favour quack cures over proper science and cure patients only by fluke. Ridgeon is then visited by the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat (who he falls in love with instantly) asking him to cure her husband, an artist. It then transpires the doctor has to make a choice between saving the artist husband of the woman he loves or his doctor friend. This takes seventy long minutes to set up.
The issues with the play are numerous. Firstly, I question the verisimilitude of the plot; it’s utterly ridiculous that an old, seemingly professional and moral doctor should be so callous as to not think the situation through reasonably. The ‘dilemma’ of the title just isn’t believable and fails to cause any kind of tension. Secondly, the representation of women and the working class is laughable, for the former are shown to be stupid and the latter amoral (perhaps Shaw is supposed to be making a satirical comment, but it doesn’t come across in Fall’s production). The play also fails to make any kind of comment; I imagine the way in which these doctors take care into their own hands for personal or monetary gain is supposed to demonstrate the need for state-run care, but it’s tenuous. In any case, our own experience is of investors rather than doctors attempting to run health care, making it irrelevant. Oh, and this ‘comedy’ is also not funny.
Fall’s production doesn’t do much to help matters. The pacing is too slow and the blocking lazy (though this was a preview, so perhaps that can be forgiven). And though Shaw’s language doesn’t exactly lend itself to naturalism, her cast overact and look to the audience far too frequently. David Calder’s Cullen and Malcolm Sinclair’s Bloomfield Bonington verge on pantomimic, whilst Genevieve O’Reilly’s Jennifer Dubedat, though engaging, wouldn’t be out of place in a melodrama. Aden Gillett’s as Ridgeon manages to bring to humanity to proceedings, and Tom Burke in the role of Dubedat has an endearing foppish charm which means his is the only story we really care about.
Peter McKintosh’s gorgeous set is easily the best thing about this production; the attention to detail here would be welcome in the performances. It is lit with relish by Neil Austin, especially in the scenes in Dubedat’s studio, where backlighting is used to high effect. But there is clearly something wrong in a production where the strongest aspect is a good set and the biggest laugh comes from Ridgeon describing journalism as “an illiterate profession, with no qualifications and no public register”, proving that audience crave current themes.
Ultimately, The Doctor’s Dilemma fails because it’s simply a bad choice of play; it’s clear Fall and her team feel this is a relevent text, but the ideas are just too thin and the writing too weak to justify it as a choice. The moments of comedy are few and don’t justify the two-hour-forty running time, whilst sometimes its easy to forget the actors on stage are professionals. Undoubtably some of these issues will be ironed out by press night, but nothing is able to overcome the oversight that this just isn’t the right play to stage.