Gordon Brown once observed how Aneurin Bevan’s vision of a National Health Service was unimaginable in its day, yet it has withstood the test of time. He proudly asserted that it ‘remains at the centre of the life of our nation as... a uniquely powerful engine of social justice’. No Help Sent addresses that claim in its portrayal of a time when, for most people, the play’s title far more aptly conveys what NHS stands for.
A delightful piece of absurdism that makes a very serious point
Jack West wrote this piece during the 2015 election period as an expression of his passionate belief in the NHS. When some doubted Margaret Thatcher’s words back in 1983 that it was ‘safe’ with her party, questions were still being asked of many politicians over thirty years later concerning how they would continue to fund, manage and sustain it. Those issues remain equally pertinent today. Hence, West envisions a specific situation where people living with a fully privatised NHS have to find ways of paying for the life-saving treatment they urgently need: a reality that already exists for many in the USA.
Having directed previous productions himself he has handed this one over to Scott Le Crass in whose hands it is doing very well. Michael (Oliver Buckner) lives with three of his young mates in a messy flat. While they all enjoy good health, he has just had an operation for testicular cancer. Without access to a free service the guys set up a crowdfunded page, organised events and generally urged people to chip in to the kitty to pay for it all. In some discomfort, he tries to enjoy a moment of fun at the somewhat tastelessly themed party they have arranged for his return. He can only hold back for so longer before telling them that the cancer has spread. What was previously surmountable is now an impossible task. The public appeal process is no longer available and the potential costs are astronomical. They have to think of a radically different approach.
At this points West’s absurdist tendencies emerge in a ludicrous scenario created by John (Rob Hadden). Hadden, seeming not too bright at times, carries this off with the admirable conviction demanded of black comedy, remaining fully intent on seeing his scheme through. Meanwhile, James (Joshua Glenister) and Lee (Peter Løfsgaard) have to accommodate the folly of his actions. Glenister, Løfsgard and Buckner valiantly attempt to apply some logic to the situation handling comedy and tragedy with equal ease. Maintaining great pace, at times worthy of farce, the whole company also manages to create moments of quiet tenderness. Richard (Tobi Faladé), as the unwitting subject of the crazy scheme speaks volumes through his silent expression and gives a powerful speech when the moment arises.
The total lack of credibility and extreme stupidity of the plan creates the need for a total suspension of disbelief which is sometimes hard to maintain. Yet it’s a delightful piece of absurdism that makes a very serious point. Other plays might choose to make their message through a more depressing and laboured lament for the NHS and one person’s tragic circumstances. No Help Sent demonstrates that nothing can replace something no one would miss until it was taken away.
Bevan once declared that the NHS ‘will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it’. LAGO Theatre has played its part in keeping up the fight by sending out a powerful message that Bevan would surely admire were he alive today.