Of all the NHS-themed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, this one shouts the most quietly. There’s none of the in-your-face politicking of other pieces, no sharp message about cuts and no lists of statistics. And yet it’s perhaps the most affecting piece of all.
In 1967, art critic John Berger collaborated with photographer Jean Mohr to write A Fortunate Man. The book followed a doctor in the Forest of Dean, John Sassall, as he went about his routine. It laid text and image side by side, using the apposition to build a picture of what care meant.
Like the book, Michael Pinchbeck’s adaptation is an interplay of landscape – of the countryside, of a doctor’s working pattern – and individual portraits of Sassall and his patients.
But calling this an adaptation isn’t quite right. Pinchbeck doesn’t really adapt the book. It’s more like a bloom around it, a flowering in theatrical form.
Two performers make out they’re giving a lecture on the book and its significance. But amid the dryness of the lecture – “slide, please” – are scattered and abstract theatrical moments. Eleanor Field’s design is an enigmatic mixture of clinical and theatrical. One of the performers bandages up a tree branch, another strews shredded paper on to the stage.
Sometimes they describe the book and its significance: it’s still used as a model of good practice by some doctors today. Then they break out of the book, to the startling fact that Sassall, who cared so deeply for his patients, committed suicide 15 years after its publication.
For Sassall, the conversation was the cure. A poignant scene recreates dialogue from the book that has Sassall talk to a young woman who thinks she’s pregnant. He talks to her gently, asks around the subject, finds out that really she just hates her job, and offers to call the Labour Exchange and sign her off for a week.
That notion of care extends to the construction of the production itself. Care is taken in its assembly, and in the gentle, welcoming performances of Hayley Doherty and Matthew Brown.
Despite being so apparently direct in the way it relates the story of the book to the audience, we actually have to do a lot of work putting it together. We have to do the joinery, make the connections. Interpreting a picture is what Berger was known for as a writer.
And Pinchbeck asks us to do the same here: to bring our own interpretation to the play. It comes across as a scattering of images and ideas, like a collage, and we have to make sense of the pieces.
Above all, the play, as the book, builds a picture of care. Of what care looked like then, and now – when GPs have 10 times the number of patients Sassall had.