“It’s like I’m on this treadmill… and somebody else is choosing the gears”

Our current unending media frenzy about healthcare has made the figure of “the doctor” a somewhat dehumanised entity. The real people who work to keep the NHS functioning are subsumed into the larger political entity of the profession as a whole: pieces on a chessboard whose lives are subject to various “efficiency savings”.  Rounds is a show that delves beneath the headlines and the politics of the current crisis in the NHS to examine the human aspect of being a junior doctor. In order to achieve this, Resuscitate Theatre devised Rounds through conducting interviews with people who work in the NHS, and involving junior doctors in the rehearsal process. The result is an important and authentic piece of theatre which gives an audience the chance to understand the pressure currently being exerted upon the people charged with our healthcare.

Rounds follows the lives of six recently qualified junior doctors on their first placements, documenting the ups and downs of these characters finding their feet in a job in which a small practical mistake or forgetting to make a note of medications can result in pain or even death. Dr Felicity Clarke (Christina Carty), Dr Grace Collins (Alex Hinson), Dr Kal Sharma (Nicolas Pimpare), Dr Lucy Wright (Penelope Rodie), Dr Dominic Cavendish (Iain Gibbons), and Dr Tom Jenkins (Adam Deane) provide a moving insight into lives under intense pressure, and illustrate a wide range of personalities coping differently with their early experiences of working in the NHS. These six characters live under the daily strain of balancing mountains of paperwork, hospital bureaucracy, unending revision, and on top of this having to deal with stray bees in the hospital; each reacts differently, but every character feels authentic and believable.

If one were to try and identify a protagonist of this story, it would probably be Dr Lucy Wright, whose struggle with trying to convince her superiors that a prior case of mental illness at university should not hold her back now ironically in fact causes so much stress in itself that her mental health again becomes an issue. But this would be to misunderstand what Rounds is. This play is not a “story” as such, and thus has no main character. Instead, the script is skilfully crafted so that the main focus remains on the hospital itself, and the story of these six characters moving through it functions as a synecdoche for the lives of many similar people moving through the NHS now. At a particularly meta moment, Rounds examines the portrayal of doctors within popular culture as Lucy and Tom (Dr Wright and Dr Jenkins) sit down to watch Grey’s Anatomy. “How come no one’s washed their hands?”, “How come there are so many empty beds?” Lucy and Tom wonder. We become aware of our own complicity within this narrative, and Rounds seeks to show what life is really like in a contemporary hospital.

Although on the surface this is a serious play, about serious people, with a serious message, the elements of humour within the piece, usually expertly driven by Iain Gibbons as the socially awkward Dr Cavendish, show the vitality of human nature. One particular scene where Dominic promises as a favour to feed his love-interest Grace’s cat we are introduced to an ingenious ‘cat-cam’. Rather than have a cat on stage, Resuscitate Theatre project a recording, taken as if from the eyes of the cat, onto the backdrop behind and the interaction between doctor and invisible cat makes for comedy gold. This is not the only notable thing about the staging of Rounds. The cast transform the confines of the Blue Elephant Theatre into a hospital environment with several moveable hospital curtains, which are also used ingeniously to create walls for the rare moments that we see the characters at home (three of these are used to create the screen for the ‘cat-cam’). This simple piece of design is very effective within a fringe theatre, and the individual curtains are also able to function as windows into the lives of the characters on stage, furthering Round’s aim of giving human insight into junior doctors.

One of the issues that Rounds handles particularly well is undoubtedly the difficulties that face female doctors. Grace and Lucy (Dr Collins and Dr Wright) are often mistaken to be nurses on the ward and Rounds tackles gendered perceptions of stress brilliantly. Lucy begins to struggle and her seniors continue to emphasise her past mental health difficulties at medical school. In comparison the lazy upper class Tom (Dr Jenkins), a product of an English boarding school education, doesn’t feel under such pressure, despite being easily the most incompetent doctor of the group, and allowances are always made for his often dangerous and frequent mistakes. His incompetence is masked to an extent by his confidence and laddish behaviour, contrasting with the passionate but insecure Lucy. Towards the end of the show Tom makes an error treating a patient, but both he and Lucy are called to be questioned about it. Tom’s cockiness sees him through, but doubts creep in over Lucy’s capabilities, and the differences between their two attitudes is most starkly demonstrated.

It is not only sexism that Rounds examines through this patchwork of life as a junior doctor. Issues of racism are also delicately handled in the character of Dr Sharma, who is confident, book-smart, and ambitious, but who has a high profile patient taken away from him because the patient would prefer a white doctor. Dr Sharma’s friend with whom he shares many cigarettes outside the hospital, Dr Clarke, has an obvious alcohol problem: turning to wine to cope with the stress of the job. And Dr Collins’s experiences demonstrate how hard it is to construct a life when starting out in the medical profession, as her budding relationship with Dr Cavendish is put in jeopardy as she discovers her next placement to be up northern Scotland.

Resuscitate combine physical theatre with an intricate script to create an intense and deeply moving theatrical piece. The physicality explores the connections between individuals where words are inadequate. Hands and washing reflect the monotony and routine of the role as well as the importance of maintaining a steady hand. The running motif of hand washing is particularly relevant to Lucy who almost attempts to strip back the skin with the ringing of her fingers as the stresses threaten to overwhelm her. For the others it has a calming effect, verging on hypnotic. The repetition of coffee drinking is also a part of the routine highlighting dependency on caffeine, fuelling the long nightshifts and hopefully enabling the doctors to be alert enough not to make fatal mistakes.

Rounds is both well-researched and well-performed. Resuscitate Theatre have created an engaging piece of theatre which carries an important message. In the short Q&A which followed the performance, director Anna Marshall spoke of how the junior doctors’ strike of 2015 occurred just as Rounds was being devised, and how this left the company with a tough decision to make the show more overtly political. Marshall explained that they believed that any show about the NHS right now is political by its very definition, and that in fact the strikes made Rounds’s ambition to humanise junior doctors more important than ever. I completely agree.

Find out more about Resuscitate here