Even in the three years since Nina Raine’s Tiger Country was last staged at the Hampstead Theatre, the rate at which the NHS is being sliced into privately-owned pieces has rapidly increased. Its doctors are having to balance profits against patients, as resources and time are stretched thinner and thinner. Raine avoids making any direct political statements, but her play is very good at depicting the soul-destroying pace of hospital working life.
Written and directed by Raine, it follows Vashti (Indira Varma), an uptight urologist; Emily (Ruth Everett), a green young doctor who has recently transferred to the hospital where her boyfriend James (Luke Thompson) works; and John (Alastair MacKenzie), an old-hand surgeon who is struggling with the toll that the job takes on his own health. Swirling around them are many other surgeons, medics, nurses, receptionists, anaesthetists and patients.
Raine’s crisp direction makes good sense of the play’s various plots, and the transitions between short scenes are some of the production’s most enjoyable moments. Beds and drips are wheeled on- and off-stage to a strong musical beat, and at times the whole cast come together and dance as they set up the next stage picture. It’s an engaging way of conveying the routines of the workplace, although it can’t stop the play’s first half from dragging.
Generally, the production’s design (by Lizzie Clachan) and direction make the play theatrical enough to carry itself above the inevitable comparisons to Holby City and Casualty. But while the writing itself has the nice balance of sharp wit and poignancy that marks all Raine’s plays, there are some points where the strain of avoiding soapishness is a little too obvious. Tiger Country is at its best when it sticks to carefully-researched jargon and the sharp back-and-forth of the doctors’ bantering; the world Raine creates through insider language is totally convincing. So when an elderly patient wanders onstage and wails about the hundreds of people staring at her, while Emily stands alone and confused at her accusatory tone, it seems silly and melodramatic. And Emily’s reference to “a bleeding fracture” just outside the frame of her relationship with James – the same words she uses about an earlier botched x-ray – sounds too knowingly clever.
As Emily, Everett gives a magnetic performance of a good woman whose ideals are worn down by her environment. Thompson and Nick Hendrix as Mark, another young male doctor, spark and spar with her believably. The scene in which Emily and James argue over the personal price of owing a duty of care to thousands of strangers feels like the heart of the play, partly due to the strength of Thompson and Everett’s acting. It’s an ensemble piece though, and Raine is very sharp on the weighted issues of gender and ethnicity in the medical profession. Rebecca (Wunmi Mosaku) complains about an elderly patient who still insists on calling her “nurse”, while Brian (Shaun Parkes), a black senior surgeon, wryly adds that the patient assumes that he’s a security guard. Mosaku does also play a nurse, Comfort, rudely patronised by Varma’s tightly-wound Vashti, but Vashti herself gradually unravels as she is confronted with sexist double-standards.
Tiger Country packs in a lot, and its plentiful ideas are well-served by its cast. For some reason, though, it isn’t much more than a smart, quite funny and occasionally moving depiction of a hospital’s daily life. With so many splintered objectives whirling around the stage, the word ‘care’ is fought over, again and again, but it’s hard for the audience to do.
Tiger Country is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 17 January. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.