Review: Mark Thomas: Check Up at the Playhouse

By Nigel Smith

IF you’re looking for someone who speaks with passion about subjects close to his heart, you need look no further than Mark Thomas. He has developed a now familiar style of documentary theatre to unpack a whole Pandora’s box on whatever topic he turns his mind to.

Check Up, subtitled Our NHS at 70, turns Thomas’s spotlight (or is that interrogation light?) on the institution that gets the emotions going at the very mention of its name. Whether it is as the hero that waits in the wings ready to spring to our aid, the object of vilification when things go wrong or a political football for every party or politician to make cynical mileage out of, the mere mention of the NHS is bound to get people’s temperatures soaring in any debate.

What Mark Thomas very cleverly does here is paint a very balanced picture whilst raising a rallying call to the service’s defence. He spent time in diligent research, interviewing numerous individuals, some working at the front line of healthcare delivery, others in the corridors of power that regulate its activities, management or funding. He also spent residencies in various hospital departments, from major trauma to bariatric surgery, collecting first-hand experience to illustrate his narrative.

What’s also clever about the structure of this impassioned monologue is Thomas’s theatrical framing device. He keeps coming back to episodes in a consultation he had with a GP, who gave him a rundown of all the things that could go wrong with his body between this moment and death.

It’s a sobering list of potential ailments and organ failures, from which the only escape would seem to be obliteration in a road accident, with one of the doctor’s personal preferences being struck on the head from behind by the wing mirror of a bus (because you don’t even see that coming).

Surely I wasn’t the only one in the audience hoping that the Playhouse had a defibrillator on hand in case Thomas had a heart attack on stage, as his delivery right from the outset is beyond punchy, and there are moments when we are willing him to pause for a breath. Meanwhile some of the stories he tells bring the theatre to a chilled standstill as he hits us with moments of unexpected tragedy.

Nobody (well, almost nobody) is totally vilified in the 75 concentrated minutes of the show, but nobody gets off the hook either. Showing footage of the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, he reminds us of the folly of blind belief in this jewel in our crown as a world leading service. He delivers a litany of statistics showing how far down world league tables we are in certain types of illness. We are, he says, the Jedward of Cancer. He also points to a breakdown in social care as one of the key factors in overburdening the health service and pushing it to breaking point.

In the final analysis, if you love something you have to see it warts and all, and this is one of the most powerful messages we take away from the evening. The NHS is not perfect but it is amazing, and most of its success comes from the sheer goodwill, determination and dedication of the people who provide the care. He offers no solutions but reminds us that we cannot have our cake and eat it. Not only will the sugar probably kill us, but so might the blind faith that we can continue to rely on that goodwill without putting hard cash behind it.

You will laugh, you will cry and you will reel at the barrage of statistics, but only if you can get a ticket. Mark Thomas’s Edinburgh Fringe First award winning Check Up is currently on tour and is at Liverpool’s Playhouse for just two nights.