This is a tough one but try to imagine a medically accurate variant of Holby City – no, don't give up yet – as reconceived by the David Hare who wrote the great trilogy about beleaguered national institutions. Now picture the result filtered through a witty, highly intelligent, PC-scourging sensibility. It's an exercise that will give you some impression of Tiger Country, Nina Raine's incisive new play, which is set in a hectically busy NHS hospital and has just opened in the author's own bustling, well-cast, lucidly orchestrated production at Hampstead Theatre.
This stage drama consciously annexes the territory of TV soap in order to do for over-stretched, under-sung doctors what Hare did for inner-city clerics in Racing Demon and the police in Murmuring Judges. It's not so much a work-play as an over-work play. Our main guide is Emily (excellent Ruth Everett), a bright, obsessive newcomer to the medical team whose idealistic spirit is gradually sapped by the realities of the job in chaotic A&E.
Through her encounters with bureaucratic obstruction, sexist hierarchies, and internecine rivalry for inadequate resources, we witness two broad kinds of déformation professionnelle. There's the type that's intrinsic to doctoring anywhere (the danger that not caring too much will coarsen to a cynical indifference) and there's the type that's peculiar to working for the NHS – a bitterness bred by the fact that, as Emily's boyfriend and fellow-medic snarlingly observes, "There's not enough NHS", with the result that it's not just pounds of flesh but stones that the institution is prepared to demand from its doctors.
The play has been meticulously researched and advertises this to the point of self-parody at times. But Raine writes with a fine mix of astringent objectivity and empathy. There are intriguing reflections on medicine as method acting and a doctor's need to be in touch with his/her own bodily instincts when diagnosing. An ambitious Indian medic (superb Thusitha Jayasundera) learns to resent the way she has had to turn herself into a travesty of a white male toff. And if you fancy watching a testicle-removal in intimate close-up, The Tiger Country is just what the doctor ordered.
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