The National Theatre’s Connections Festival is an initiative to get new and innovative writing, focused on young people, out across the country. The yearly project provides an opportunity for youth theatres and schools to perform new pieces, encouraged by representatives from the National Theatre, and a selection have the honour of performing at the National itself.
Eugene O’Hare’s Hospital Food, performed by Kildare Youth Theatre is an excellent choice of play for the festival, as it features both a cast of teenagers and has a moving subject: it concerns the residents of a teenage cancer unit in a city hospital. More specifically, there is a room known as The Retreat, where the teenagers can go to discuss things with each other in complete confidence, away from nurses, doctors and parents. We start here, with Gus telling his cohort that his mother will be stealing him away and taking him to a new homeopathy clinic. Needless to say, his friends are rightly sceptical, but can do little to stop him; after all, what is said in The Retreat stays in The Retreat.
The young actors are a solid ensemble, and the relationships picked apart on stage work well, halfway between a teen soap opera and a medical drama. This blend allows for a comfortable entrance into a world and circumstance most of us could not imagine, played throughout with sensitivity and occasional subtle brilliance. However, the emotional punches came when the youngsters confronted the tragedy in their situations: “When there are ten people in a room, I’m looking around to see which two are screwed.” It’s a hard-hitting outlook few can relate to, especially when combined with the coming-of-age angst young people face. This is exacerbated by the impact this situation has on their friendships, when it is hinted Gus may be running away because he does not want his friends to see him pass. On this point, Sarah McCormack, playing Sadie, should be commended for her touching monologue about her old dog Ruben, who digs a hole to die in, away from his family.
In terms of design, the set was quite minimal, a classic affair of moving boxes turning into beds and sofas; they were also garishly coloured, exactly what you would expect from a hospital trying to be ‘down with the kids’. Likewise, sound was used usefully in transitions, but very effectively when Josh (Charlie Hughes-Farrell) has a vocal breakdown, or ‘chemo-brain’.
Unfortunately, there were awkward moments, perhaps highlighted at the end, in a painfully milked-out segment when Gus finally has to leave. I understand that the direction to draw everything out was done in the name of poignancy, but it fell flat on two levels. Firstly, the necessity to leave had been established, so any drawing out was needless and without conflict, and secondly, if leaving was as urgent as implied, then taking that long made no logical sense.
That being said, the piece achieved its aim, flitting between the natural and the poignant, with a cast that worked solidly and gave glimpses of great flair.
Hospital Food played at the National Theatre as part of Connections, running until 6 July. For tickets and more information, see the National Theatre website.