at Southwark Playhouse, Friday 4th July 2013
Under the current administration, little chunks of the NHS that Nye Bevin and Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government created in 1948 are destroyed on a daily basis. Little chunks of the institution that has served us for sixty years (and only sixty years – it’s easy to forget it’s still a relatively young service) are being chewed up and spat out into private hands in such a way that much of the time it goes unnoticed. You only have to look at the papers to see that the NHS is demonised and degraded, with focus on the millions spent on cosmetic surgery rather than the billions spent on saving lives. In The Kindness of Strangers, Curious Directive have created a piece of theatre for five spectators which demonstrates an inherent tenderness in all of us, and how that impulse is a cornerstone of that beautiful thing, the National Health Service.
After being ushered into a somewhat old-looking ambulance and given headphones round the back of Southwark Playhouse, our vehicle begins reversing with its doors open, so that the landscape in front of us becomes the background. A cyclist scoots past – was he a part of the show? – and we hear Sylvia’s voice, describing in beautifully poetic language a vision she has of Nye Bevin and his NHS. Then, before we know it, we are being helped into the back of another, more modern-looking, ambulance by a young paramedic. She smiles warmly at us, places us in our seats, and shuts the doors behind us. The journey begins.
This is Lisa, and she is just beginning her first night-shift as a paramedic. She will be accompanied by Sylvia, who is about to retire at sixty-five after decades in the service, and who we only encounter as a voice on our headphones. As the two talk, we make our way through the night and various call-outs, being invited to help those outside the ambulance en route (my personal task required me to help Zack, a man who broke his arm, wrap a present for the daughter who saved him by calling 999, Rebecca).
The simple set-up of young paramedic and old paramedic sets up immediate drama and dichotomies; optimism versus cynicism, idealism versus realism, youthful energy versus elderly wisdom. Sarah Woodward achieves a phenomenally rounded character as Sylvia, which is no mean feat considering we only ever hear her voice. She is at once calming and cold, kind and harsh. She stands for the way the NHS used to be, whilst Fiona Drummond as Lisa on this performance (the play uses a double-cast) is full of warm, bouncing energy and optimistic potential. Like a good paramedic, she makes us feel oddly at home in the ambulance.
What strikes me most about The Kindness of Strangers is its coherence. Much collaboratively-made work can feel muddled and confused (not always in a bad way), but Jack Lowe’s direction here pulls everything together with real cogency. As well as having a clear narrative, therefore, we are also treated to an aesthetic which makes perfect sense: everything is seen through the ‘eyes’ of a paramedic with our window to the world being the back doors of the ambulance; information is delivered via the video system; a projector gives a sense of movement; outdoor events force us into positions of care; the ambulance feels like a genuine box of tricks, with props appearing seemingly out of nowhere; and music adds to a real sense of danger. Through all this, too, we lose none of the complexity within the ideas presented and have a real sense of a complete world, with all the strange twists and turns that entails.
Considering it’s such an intimate piece about caring for others, Curious Directive have smartly smuggled a lot of anger and passion into the show. They offer us the argument that each and every one of us has the potential and desire to help strangers, meaning the destruction of the NHS is both illogical and inhuman. Two years after the Olympics Opening Ceremony championed the NHS, The Kindness of Strangers finds complexity, asks questions and offers alternatives to current government orthodoxy where Danny Boyle failed to do so.
The company also give out playscripts at the end of the show, which is a fascinating decision considering the seeming specificity of place and slight changes made now the piece has been playing a couple of months, showing the beautiful fluidity of work like this.
The Kindness of Strangers runs until 16th July with around six performances daily.