Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Doctor's Dilemma (National Theatre)

George Bernard Shaw's play is an interesting choice to put on at the moment, as the economics of healthcare are probably under closer scrutiny than they have been for nearly 70 years.

However, the NT – mercifully – isn't pressing as hard to make The Doctor's Dilemma as contemporary as its current production of Timon of Athens, even though it involves medics having to decide which lives are worth saving when demand for treatment outstrips resources.

The doctor in the title is Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett), whose cure for tuberculosis has propelled him to the top of his profession.

And his dilemma? With only one place remaining for his treatment, Sir Colenso must decide whether to give it to an ailing but brilliant young artist, Dubedat (Tom Burke), or a kind but poor fellow doctor, Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchison).

He decides that Dubedat's youth and talent make him the winner, but things become complicated when the doctor meets the artist, who turns out to be not only an amoral and opportunistic scrounger but also a bigamist.

And there's more: Ridgeon develops the hots for Dubedat's (second) wife, Jennifer (Genevieve O'Reilly, Episodes), and begins to consider the possibility of marrying her were Dubedat – by some terrible event – to die.

Directed by Nadia Fall, this is an energetic production of a play that bears all Shaw's hallmarks: a vigorous debate about social issues dressed immaculately in strong characterisation and stage-craft.

The gaggle of eminent doctors in Ridgeon's circle each cling to their own dogmatic approach to treatment with a white-knuckle grip, putting financial gain and reputation ahead of any genuine care for their patients customers.

In their blank-eyed self-belief and arrogant disregard for the 'little people', they anticipate one of Shaw's later and more widely known characters: Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

As one of the plays most quotable lines has it, medicine "isn't a profession, it's a conspiracy" – a charge that Shaw levelled at all the professions, which he saw as working for their own benefit and against the public interest.

The cast brings the cabal to life with gusto – especially Robert Portal as the dapper Mr Cutler Walpole and Malcolm Sinclair as the obsequious Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington, eager to flaunt his royal credentials but ready to play 'clinical roulette' with his patients' lives. 

A special mention should also go to designer Peter McKintosh, who makes the most of the Lyttleton stage and even won a ripple of applause during one scene transition.

The production requires moderate powers of endurance (2 hours and 50 minutes at the preview we attended), but it's incisive, entertaining and another powerful reminder of why we'll miss the NHS when it's gone.

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