If there is one stand-out message from National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 programme, it’s the fact that the institution thrives because of the people who keep it moving. Examples of this are given through the five one-act plays commissioned for the season, but its this promenade production that really drives the point home. Borne out of real experiences people have shared, As Long as the Heart Beats is a beautifully captured snapshot of life inside an NHS hospital, and the people responsible for making it so.
Just the fact that NTW are able to perform inside Newport’s Royal Gwent Hospital is a great coup for the company, adding another layer of authenticity to the production. As the audience sit in the waiting room of the Outpatients Department before the show starts, there is already a buzz in the air. Were it not for familiar faces running around, the audience could be forgiven for thinking this was real NHS staff.
That warm feeling continues when the play starts and the audience is ushered in small groups to different parts of the ward. The first NHS baby and a porter on her first day are just two of the characters met along the way, each with their own story to tell. Though shorter than they perhaps needed to be, each monologue is an engaging and well-performed one. As Long as the Heart Beats doesn’t contain high-drama or big twists – you’ll find those in other NHS70 productions – but it makes up for that with genuinely uplifting and heart-warming set-pieces. It’s a sentiment punctuated by the raw emotion drawn from the true story of a young organ donor, in what becomes the play’s natural crescendo.
Undoubtedly, it’ll be the stories that audience members take away with them, making it easy to ignore that, technically, As Long As the Heart Beats is superb. Splitting the audience and creating overlapping narratives may be in keeping with NTW’s previous work, but it’s still a bold structural choice for Ben Tinniswood and Marcus Romer. The co-directors pull it off, however, and the entire technical and design team deserve plaudits. Becky Davies makes the most of a restrictive ‘set’ to design the piece, while Rhys Pugh Evans (sound technician) and Trystan Hardy’s (assistant) control of Tic Ashfield’s (composer) ambient sound design is appropriately soothing.
It’s these technical aspects of As Long as the Heart Beats that stop the play from straying into total melodrama, and that is reflected in the finale. Both the audience and the cast gather in the waiting room, where one final emotional punch is delivered, the previously blurred lines between reality and fiction separating again. In the same way that they’re reminded at the start that this is a fictionalised narrative, the audience are sent home reminded that it is all still very real.