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Bed 13

by on 17 July 2019

Deadpan Bedpan

Bed 13

by Marcia Kelson

Putney Arts Company, Old Sorting Office, Barnes, until 19th July

Review by Vince Francis

My mother was a nurse. She arrived from Ireland during the last war to train and dealt mainly with airmen and some mariners. After we had all grown up a bit (there are six of us), she returned to nursing as a dental nurse in the outpatients department of the local teaching hospital. This wasn’t as mundane as it might sound as she was occasionally involved in supporting the A&E teams’ work with survivors of road traffic accidents, fights and other traumatic events. It wasn’t unusual for her to come home having assisted in stabilising the facial injuries of some poor sot who had come off his motorcycle (and yes, it was usually a he and yes, it was usually a motorcycle) so that the trauma team could focus on other priorities. Also I think it’s fair to say that most of the issues explored in this piece are familiar to me as a result. I offer this information as I think it’s relevant to declare I have a particular interest in Putney Theatre Club’s production of Bed 13.

This is a new piece, written by Marcia Kelson, who also directs. The play has been entered for the Papatango New Writing Prize  and has been long-listed as a result. For those who may be unfamiliar with this prize, it was established in 2009. It was the first and remains one of the few annual playwriting award in the UK to guarantee an emerging playwright a full production on the professional stage. It provides a royalty of 10% of the gross box office and publication by Nick Hern Books, as well as a full commission to support a follow-up play.

Putney Theatre Company (PTC) is normally associated with the Putney Arts Centre, so they are playing away here, and making a pretty good fist of it.

Bed 13 pic3

I’m sure that many of us are familiar with the problems and issues facing the NHS and offer opinions and solutions in the abstract. The advantage of a play, or film, or television programme is that it can set those discussions in the context of real people and the effects on them. This script has great strength in this respect. Marcia Kelson draws on her experience as an NHS researcher to provide characters that are well drawn, believable and developed throughout the play, as are the situations they face.

As we enter the auditorium, we are soothed into our seats by the playing of Samuel Woolf, offering such arch references as The First Cut Is The Deepest and I’m No Superman, which was the theme from the American hospital based comedy drama TV series Scrubs. But it is the theme from our own Casualty that acts as the figurative curtain-raiser and introduces us to Angela, an NHS manager who implores us to make proper use of A&E and not take up time with cuts and bruises or sniffles and coughs. The opening number, The 999 Song, serves to underline this plea and introduce us to a well-drilled ensemble.

Angela, ably presented by Caroline Salter, comes across well as someone who is trying to access and present that breezy efficiency that we all love to hate, but who is actually hanging on to any positivity by her fingernails in the face of conflicting demands that threaten to overwhelm. These demands are, of course the huge call on services by the public, diminishing resource levels and increasing management demands. As a result, Angela becomes an altogether more sympathetic character. Angela also addresses us directly on occasion to provide relevant information.

Bed 13 pic2

We are then introduced in short order to nurses Stacey (Emma Bugg) and Carol (Tamsin Gatewood), together with patients Mr Jackson (David Jones) and Graham (Tim Iredale). Mr Jackson is in the middle stages of dementia and is looking for his wife, who in reality has died some time previously, whilst Graham takes on the role of the ward jester. Both are familiar characters and in the case of Mr Jackson, sadly so. I wondered briefly whether this device of looking for his deceased wife was going to slip into a form of Carry-On standing gag, but it didn’t. It rightly emphasized the pathos of the situation. The character of Graham is interesting in that his storyline points towards a resolution that doesn’t occur. As such, it is more reflective of the random elements of diagnosis and treatment.

Stacey and Carol are a great pairing. The conversations between colleagues provide the opportunity to point up the front-line issues facing nurses and their overriding vocational dedication. The one element that is not referenced, I think, is that of violence towards A&E staff. That aside, the dialogue and interactions and emotional responses all felt natural and realistic. Both sing well, too. Their duet, Nurse Patient Note Song delivers a witty and insightful observation and demonstrates a well-balanced musicality.

Other notable performances include the aforementioned David Jones in a second role as Doctor. Rachelle Grubb as variously Susie, Alison, Sophie or Janice, where each character was distinct and defined and even her appearance and physicality changed to suit. The costume changes must be a nightmare. Also, Craig McAulay playing Clive, the sort of manager one would never get tired of slapping.

The scope of the piece is fairly wide ranging, including the effect of chronic illness on relationships, particularly family relationships. There are two key instances of this; one with Mr Jackson’s daughter, who is rather self-obsessed and materialistic and the other with a mother and her adult daughter, who has a recurrence of a cancer. This last, although it was well acted by Lesly-Ann Jones and Rachelle Grubb, felt a bit laboured in contrast to the pacy coverage shown up to that point. It may possibly benefit from a bit of tightening up in the writing, or the inclusion of a song, such as Alison and Mr Jackson’s duet, Alison’s Song, which occurs later in the piece.

Bed 13 pic1

Overall, I found this to be an engaging, entertaining and interesting exploration of the current state of the NHS. The action moves through comedy, sometimes the black comedy that is the means by which front-line staff deal with these situations, to pathos, to tragedy, in the death of a patient and the reaction of staff to it. The woman directly behind my partner was living through it and, rightly so. I would openly admit to welling up at the death of one of the patients. There is also a treatment of the growing corporate nature of the NHS and the politics within it.

Musically, the numbers felt appropriately crafted into the action and dialogue. The chorus numbers work well and there are some lovely duets, Carol and Stacey as already noted, but also Graham and Doctor in a glorious soft-shoe routine, Doctor-Patient Song, using crutches as walking canes – well, you would, wouldn’t you?   I didn’t come out humming anything from the show, but that could be said of many a show I have enjoyed. Sometimes, the music works intrinsically for the piece. Geoffrey Hewitt’s score fulfils that requirement and that’s perfectly OK.

The choreography suited the space and the cast and that is the sign of a mature and considered approach in my humble opinion. If people look comfortable with what they are doing they come across so much better than if you can see the panic in their eyes. My current exemplar of this approach is Come From Away.

Other stand out points for me were:
The programme. Succinct, informative and comprehensive. Take a house point. But please, please, please include a list of the songs and characters singing them.
The baritone voice of David Jones and the lovely Mezzo/Alto voice of Tamsin Gatewood are both worth a hearing in their own right.
The use of set and lighting. In a small space like the OSO Arts, any crew intervention is noticeable and this production avoided that by blacking out areas not in use and using bed screens to mask upstage changes made by the cast. This keeps the action moving.

If I were able to offer a couple of touches at the elbow, they would be:
To the cast; relax and let the script and characters take you on the journey. The audience will come with you. Having said that, I appreciate this was an opening night and I’m confident that this cast will settle and shine.
To both the cast and tech crew be prepared for the bounce at the bows. This is good and it deserves one.
A minor irritant was that the electric piano had too much bass in it. This may be due to a heavy left hand, or it may perhaps be an EQ issue, but solo and duet voices were sometimes lost, particularly when temporarily facing upstage. It may be that this was not apparent to Samuel Woolf, who is an excellent player, as the amplifier was angled – rightly so – on stage. It just needs someone to listen from the auditorium to check.

Bed 13 refers to the practice of not having a bed number 13 in an A&E department, as it might be considered unlucky. With this crew, I’d risk it. I think I’d be in safe hands.

Niggles aside, I’d thoroughly recommend this production. At eighty minutes, there’s ample time to meet and greet after and that is an added bonus.

Vince Francis
July 2019

Photography by Benjamin Copping

From → Drama, Reviews

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