1950s: At the Point of Need at the Old Vic online
The past ten weeks have made us only too aware of the significance of the National Health Service. At The Old Vic’s own “point of need” due to the ongoing crisis, the theatre has revived its 70th-anniversary celebration of the NHS in an online series of monologues curated by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Adrian Lester. Paul Unwin’s contribution – 1950s: At the Point of Need – is an honest, sombre tribute to the role the NHS plays in our most testing times.
Collaborating once again with actor David Threlfall (Shameless’ gregarious, vagabond star Frank Gallagher), Unwin’s monologue passes through the 70 years of his protagonist Tony’s life. From Tony’s birth in the 1950s to his incapacity in the present, throughout his journey the health service is rendered a constant, if changing, touchstone. As co-creator of Casualty, Unwin is no stranger to imagining life in hospitals, though fortunately, this 2018 monologue is more social drama than soap opera.
The playwright also offers hints to the changes within the public institution and society, alluding to the encroaching, dilutive bureaucratisation of care after years of austerity. Yet, more often than not, Unwin relegates the politics to the background, inviting more personal reflection.
The writing is rich with dry wit, brash observations and sharp poignancy as Tony recalls a lifetime of joys, pains and regrets. The production’s sparseness and Lester’s simple direction (aided by film editor Tim Marrinan’s effective cutting) has a quality that David Mamet and Peter Brook would admire. This allows the alternating modesty and intensity in Unwin’s script to really shine. Oddly, the style feels very apt for our current pared-back times.
Unrecognisable under a wild, white beard, unkempt hair and a dishevelled funeral suit, Threlfall regales his audience with Tony’s tumbling chronology of anecdotes and milestones. The actor’s bedraggled bonhomie (with versatile, lumbering physicality and endearing Mancunian lilt) breathes life into his character within minutes. Taking us in and out of hospital through births, injuries and deaths, Tony also reveals the costly mistakes and his decaying relationships despite his irrepressible outward cheer (“You’re very good with people” he repeats with a self-approving nod). Through sheer, desperate affection, Threlfall holds onto the audience up to his last exasperated slump.
Though the weekly clapping, public declarations of “heroism”, and stirring memorials for those who’ve sacrificed their lives during the coronavirus crisis have been in every headline, At the Point of Need is a necessary, gentle reminder that the NHS and its staff will (hopefully always) be there for life’s pivotal moments. Unwin’s neat tribute suggests that though the NHS can’t always repair, heal or cure our lives or loved ones, it’s unfailing support should be recognised and respected.
1950s: At the Point of Need is on the Old Vic’s YouTube channel from 21st May. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
You can watch 1950s: At the Point of Need here: