Jafar Iqbal reviews National Theatre of Wales’ For All I Care, in honour of the seventy-year anniversary of the NHS.
For an institution like the NHS to have reached seventy years is certainly cause for celebration, and a programme of theatre dedicated to it is the least it deserves. Art exists to imitate life, and the selection of shows presented by National Theatre of Wales demonstrates that with aplomb. From the diversity of the creatives involved, to the variety of genres, locations and artforms represented, it all feeds back into the idea of community and oneness that the NHS is lauded for.
It’s not always like this, though. For art to truly imitate life it’s also important to highlight how, thanks to poor management and government cuts, the NHS has become a shell of its former self. It’s a steady decline that has impacted on the lives of those depending on it for both healthcare and a living. Enter: For All I Care. Alan Harris’ one-hander, reuniting him with actor Alexandria Riley, is that reminder. Rather than a celebration of the NHS, it’s a bittersweet observation on what it used to be and a salute to the people fighting for it.
For All I Care looks at the NHS through the eyes of both the patients and the workforce. Suicide attempts land Clara, a wayward teenager, into a psychiatric facility and under the supervision of no-nonsense nurse Nyri. A relationship develops between the two women, but its cruelly and prematurely ended by bureaucracy and red tape. With encouragement from an unlikely source, Nyri decides to take matters into her own hands.
Those familiar with Harris’ work will see his stamp clearly on the script. Well-written monologues are a hallmark of his writing, and the two that run parallel in this play don’t buck that trend. His habit of breaking the fourth wall also continues, as does the inclusion of a surreal element. It’s the latter habit that, on this occasion, perhaps could have been omitted. While a well-written sequence, it’s also deeply contrived and, in a play that otherwise feels so organic, sticks out like a sore thumb.
That one misstep doesn’t stop this from being a solid and important piece of theatre, though. Harris is careful not to try and tackle too much, and the play is better for it. Arguably the NHS is just a backdrop to what is actually a coming-of-age drama, and it definitely doesn’t lose anything for that. It also doesn’t hurt that the other two lead creatives are Riley and director Jac Ifan Moore. In her second collaboration with Harris, Riley once again shines. Sunglasses may be a visual indicator of change in perspective, but it’s the subtle modifications in body language and speech patterns that really stand out. It’s yet another notch to her belt of versatile performances. Moore demonstrates an assured and confident command of the space, evident in the understatedly bold staging. The stage is set out like a model’s runway, adding a depressing layer to the narrative: the characters are presenting themselves to the audience, selling the NHS struggle in exchange for sympathy.
The rest of NTW’s NHS70 programme may have more of a celebratory tone, but there is something rather admirable about a play such as For All I Care. A play that isn’t applauding or criticising the institution, or one that contrives to pull at heart-strings. This play may indeed make audiences cry, and it may reinforce the love the nation has for the NHS, but its not really about either of those things. For All I Care is a play about people – people who sometimes need saving, and people who sometimes do the saving.
National Theatre Wales’ NHS70 season continues throughout July.
Jafar Iqbal is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.