The Doctor's Dilemma, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

As the government sets about dismantling the NHS and as rationing of rare resources becomes ever more moralising and invidious, this is a particularly timely moment for Nadia Fall's delightfully spirited, musically paced and handsomely designed revival of The Doctor's Dilemma. 

Shaw wrote the play in 1906 and in its witty, irreverent way, it adds up to a powerful argument for a national heath service and for salaried doctors held to public account.  Through a top medic's struggle over which of two patients to save, Shaw homes in on the ethics of monitoring access to health care. 

Through the assortment of moneyed physicians who keep assembling to help the protagonist make his choice, the dramatist satirises a commercial system that turned doctors into a conspiracy of competitive tradesmen with a vested interesting in exploiting credulity. 

A top-hatted, frock-coated Doc Squad, who reminded me deliciously of some slow-moving, pompous equivalent of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition as they descended on the various scenes, these latter are an absurd, beautifully cast joy in this production, with David Calder, Robert Portal and Malcolm Sinclair on top comic form.

Each peddles his pet, all-purpose theory (removal of the nuciform sac, stimulating the phagocytes etc) in cheerful disregard of failure rates.  The excellent Aden Gillett plays the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon who has a limited number of places on his trial of a new cure for consumption.  Should he select Derek Hutchinson's amiable Blenkinsop a threadbare, decent journeyman GP in a poor district or the gifted young painter, Dubedat, who reveals himself to be a lying scoundrel adept at playing on men's crushes on his wife Jennifer (a beautifully intense and statuesque Genevieve O'Reilly) to touch them for cash.

It's a complicating factor that Sir Colenso is badly smitten by Jennifer.  Watching this shrewdly weighted version, I felt sure that Tom Burke's provocatively charming bounder of a Dubedat, with his witty languid way of turning the tables on humbug, would, for all his faults, be much preferable as a husband to the rational, calculating knight.  With sets that truck back to be replaced by others that rise from under the Lyttelton stage, the production has a wonderful calm, measured flow.

It's in the jolting, stunningly well-played final scene in the art gallery that Sir Colenso appreciates how in badly his presumptuous attempts to play protective god with Genevieve's life have backfired.  A revival that is, ahem, just what the doctor ordered.

To Sept 12; 020 7452 3000