Jafar Iqbal reviews Come Back Tomorrow, the final instalment of National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 series, celebrating the NHS.
The fifth and final instalment of NHS70, NTW’s one-act plays about the NHS, is perhaps its most damning. Staged inside the chapel of Singleton Hospital in Swansea, Roy Williams’ generation-spanning piece takes a cynical look at the life of two black NHS nurses. Come Back Tomorrow begins in post-war Jamaica, where Gloria is moving to Wales to join her husband and become a nurse. The difficulties she encounters on her arrival are echoed seventy years later when granddaughter Judith – also a nurse – contemplates resignation, having reached the end of her tether.
The poor working conditions of nurses have been documented for some time and racial inequality, of course, far longer than that. Williams’ story acknowledges that neither of these problems has gone away after seventy years, but his script fails to offer any satisfying catharsis. It suggests that black nurses are still subjected to racial abuse, even if it’s no longer institutional, and that all nurses are more overworked and underappreciated than ever before. Passion for the job is what keeps our protagonists coming back every day but, because of how frankly Williams describes the lack of change, that one positive doesn’t feel like enough.
There is still much to appreciate about Williams’ script, and a good production could have hidden those narrative flaws. Unfortunately, it’s let down by a lacklustre central performance. Ginny Holder’s entrance on-stage has all the majesty of a Hollywood starlet from the forties and, early on, she talks about nursing as though she’s talking about movie stardom. That promising start doesn’t last the full length of the play, however, and cracks start to appear in her performance. Holder constantly trips up on her lines, sometimes at crucial moments, devaluing their significance. It’s a shame because, at times, there are flashes of what she is capable of. As Judith, she brilliantly recounts screaming at a group of drunk young people in A&E, telling them off for taking time and resources away from the people who really need it. It’s by far the most powerful moment of the play, and she makes a great job of it.
While the director shouldn’t be held entirely responsible for an actor not delivering lines properly, Paulette Randall’s decision not to make more use of the intriguing setting certainly seems like a missed opportunity. The hospital chapel is a gorgeous space, and designer Carl Davies does smartly set the stage under a stained-glass window. The play is a static one, though. Save for a brief ‘scene change’ Holder doesn’t move much and, considering the size and ornate quality of the space, questions must be asked why it is not used more creatively.
Ultimately, missed opportunities keep cropping up. Come Back Tomorrow is certainly contender for most damning piece but, sadly, it’s also contender for most underwhelming. The treatment of nurses (and any public servant) absolutely needs to be discussed, and Roy Williams makes a solid but flawed stab at it. Perhaps, unintentionally, this last monologue hits on what the evolution of the NHS really has been in some people’s eyes: Something so bright and promising bogged down by the people in charge of keeping it that way.
National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 season continues throughout July.
Jafar Iqbal is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.