While mental health has been a hot topic at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe recently, shows dealing with physical ailments are coming to the fore this year. Writers and performers tell Emily Jupp about depicting their conditions on stage, as well as putting the well-being of the National Health Service in the spotlight
This year the British Red Cross took the unprecedented step of warning that the country faced a “humanitarian crisis” in hospital and ambulance services as it struggled to keep up with demand.
The National Health Service disputed the Red Cross’ claims but admitted demand was higher than ever. With waiting times up, funding down, talk of privatisation by the back door and issues over staffing, it feels like a critical moment for an institution that remains cherished in the UK. When market research agency Opinium asked what made people proud to be British, the NHS was the most popular answer.
That strength of feeling will be reflected at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year. At least 10 shows are covering the NHS, highlighting the wonderful job its staff do and the pressures they are under. Many of the stories are told through performers discussing their own serious conditions and how the NHS looked after them.
Georgie Morrell is taking two shows to the fringe: The Morrell High Ground and A Poke in the Eye. She has been a ‘patron’ of the NHS, as she puts it, for 27 years since being diagnosed with juvenile chronic arthritis, which led to uveitis with secondary glaucoma.
“I have nothing but great things to say about the NHS,” she says. “But I have noticed that in the last 10 years it has got worse, not because of the staff but because of the pressure they are under. It is underfunded; that’s just a fact.”
“Everyone knows the NHS is at crisis point,” agrees Viv Gordon, whose show PreScribed (A Life Written for Me) comes to the Zoo from August 15. “But what people don’t realise is that it is an urgent issue. The NHS and the Welfare State are part of our national self-esteem.”
This decade, the NHS has seen the lowest spending increases in its history, while UK health spending per head is lower than in comparable countries such as France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Gordon is a dance and theatre practitioner who plays a GP in the show, which draws inspiration from her own high-functioning mental breakdown. But rather than exploring the patient experience of using the NHS, her two-hander about the systemic pressures GPs are working under uses dance to communicate her inner struggle. Ten-minute appointments, huge levels of bureaucracy and paperwork and GPs picking up the slack when other services – such as mental health support – are shut down all add to the pressure of the job.
Gordon says: “There is a culture of invulnerability within the profession that makes it hard for doctors to admit they are struggling, yet the conditions of their work environment are a perfect storm for poor mental health.”
The piece is based on research by the University of Bristol into support for GPs with mental health problems.
“GPs have the highest suicide rate of any professional group,” says Gordon. “It has got worse in recent years because of the shifting culture in the way practices are run as businesses. If I were a GP now, the job I would have trained to do would be entirely different.”
Shows exploring mental health issues have become increasingly visible at the fringe in recent years, with high-profile examples including Bryony Kimmings’ Fake It ’Til You Make It and Richard Gadd’s Monkey See Monkey Do.
The topic has become so prevalent that the Mental Health Foundation has launched an award to recognise the show that most successfully explores the subject.
This year, performers are increasingly taking to the stage to talk about physical ailments. Morrell’s show A Poke in the Eye is about the year she lost her sight completely.
“I went blind in my left eye at 15 and I was 21 when I went blind in my right. The NHS got me to a point where I could see and walk,” she says. “I will go blind again in the future and will the NHS be able to help me again? The truth is I don’t know, because they aren’t getting the funding they need to research the solutions. And that directly affects me.”
Morrell sees the NHS crisis as part of a larger pattern of government cuts. Her disability and housing benefits were cut and she had to reapply for her disability support after the Conservatives changed the process.
“When I was blind and on benefits, I had to prove I was blind,” she says. “I had to get a certificate of vision impairment. The consultant shouldn’t have to go through those forms. It’s 40 pages long and there were irrelevant and invasive questions, like how far I could walk.”
The Shape of the Pain is about director Rachel Bagshaw’s experience of a disorder called chronic pain syndrome. In her work, devised with the writer Chris Thorpe, she tries to express the pain as she experiences it.
“I do have to wear clothes, unfortunately, but then the air can be more painful than clothes,” Bagshaw explains while discussing the neurological condition.
“The way I deal with it is to have an out-of-body experience when the pain is very bad. It is a very active process, and it made me think about how humans survive situations where they are under great duress. It’s a very human fact that our bodies don’t always fit into the plans we have for life so it’s for anyone who has felt that.”
Bagshaw’s doctor, Helen Cohen – a consultant in pain at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital – worked very closely with the team to develop the scenes in the show.
“For me to experience Rachel’s perception of living with the pain was fascinating,” says Cohen. “To get a real feel of what she has to live with is a real eye-opener – things like this are very helpful.”
Cohen says the show relates to some of the problems the NHS has. “How does the NHS deal with an ageing population, combined with chronic long-term conditions? One of the most common causes of seeing your doctor is chronic pain – back pain. It’s relatively expensive to treat and there aren’t clear measures of success, so how do you prove something like pain research is cost effective?”
Gutted is based on actor Liz Richardson’s experiences as a young person living with ulcerative colitis, a seldom-discussed affliction of the bowels. She had an operation on the NHS to improve the condition.
“I had my whole large intestine removed and they created a pouch inside me. I lived with a bag and then I had a pouch inside which enables me to have a more active normal life and, at the moment, life is good.”
In Richardson’s piece, the NHS is ever-present, but she decided to tone down the political aspects so as not to lecture her audience.
“I don’t call it the NHS in the show; I call it the system. I wonder [in the performance] how I would have funded the operation without the NHS. The show is about the people, the doctors, the surgeons and nurses. I celebrate them all even though I impersonate them. I celebrate the dignity they gave me. Without those people and without the NHS, where would I be? The NHS supported me and I wouldn’t be able to have the life I have now without it.”
Many of the shows have been performed in hospitals, with Q&A sessions for patients and medical professionals. “For me it was a dream come true to go to hospitals,” says Richardson, “I wasn’t prepared for how much of an impact it would have on people. Husbands came to me in tears saying they didn’t realise how ill their wife really was, because they hid it so well. Young couples where one partner had the condition were saying that it’s not very sexy but I had shown them how to get on with it. There is a huge demand from hospitals for us to do the show.”
Gutted has just completed a national tour of hospitals after sell-out shows at Home in Manchester. The piece will do two more hospital shows in Scotland and Richardson is planning another tour in spring 2018.
Gordon has presented PreScribed to GP training programmes in London and Wales and hopes to roll it out nationally. She hopes it will inform the way GPs are trained in the future and show them that asking for mental health support should not be a weakness.
“GPs watching the performance were saying they felt their life was being read back to them,” says Gordon. “There’s a message about the public sector pay cap and the perception of the frontline worker that resonated with other public sector workers in the audience as well, not just GPs.
“Feedback from members of the public was that they were moved – both emotionally and politically.”
The Morrell High Ground
Underbelly Med Quad, August 2-28
A Poke in the Eye
Laughing Horse at Cabaret Voltaire, August 4-28
PreScribed (A Life Written for Me)
Zoo, August 15-25
The Shape of the Pain
Summerhall, August 2-26
Pleasance Dome, August 2-13