I was worried about this one. Worried because the last time I saw Mark Thomas in the flesh, my university friends and I bumped into him somewhere along Whitehall during the million-strong crowd of the 2003 anti-Iraq invasion protest. Worried because the first of his two nights at the Liverpool Playhouse was April 12, the date that the UK was scheduled, for the second time, to crash out of the EU without a deal. Worried because my fondness for him as a comedian is wrapped up in my years of student politics, when I was cash-poor, time-rich and self-assured enough to pronounce on the ills of the modern world. An old-fashioned leftie comedy routine about the state of the NHS amid the all-consuming car crash of Brexit might, I feared, feel like more student politics; tilting at windmills and oblivious to the contemporary agenda.
Fear not. The truth is that Thomas’s heartfelt and carefully-crafted production is both viscerally funny and a fierce reminder of the tragic opportunity cost of Brexit. He isn’t missing the point by talking about something other than this self-imposed catastrophe; something as pivotal as our National Health Service. Everyone else is missing the point by not doing that.
As always with Thomas, the power of this latest show comes in good measure from his forensic research – the life expectancy gap between neighbours of Grenfell and neighbours of Harrods (within the same London borough) is 22 years – and Check Up represents an impressive piece of investigative journalism served inside 75 minutes of comedy. It is the product of four weeks shadowing A&E doctors, dementia nurses and hospital site directors; watching people receive dialysis, prepare for gastric surgery and die having fallen through a plate-glass window, despite the efforts of a 35-strong medical team. Snippets of publicly-conducted interviews with politicians, academics and Dame Sally Davies, NHS England’s chief medical officer, are scattered liberally throughout the show, and Thomas has based his diagnosis on their input as well as his own, proudly worn political inclinations (“It will come as no surprise that I am a bit of a leftie”). His afternoon spent with a (possibly apocryphal) GP who catalogued all the potential ways a 55-year-old man might get ill-served as a reminder that Thomas, like all of us, is going to need the NHS to be in good shape at some point, when we are not.
His attacks are wide-ranging and efficiently made. Within an hour and a quarter, swipes are taken at state of social care (“the NHS is not an island”), unwarranted British exceptionalism (“we are the Jedward of cancer”) and the financial legacy of hospital PFI. Yet the most compelling moments come in the personal tales of individual doctors and patients he met on his travels, told with plentiful gesticulation, much self-depreciating humour and bucket-loads of humanity.
Check Up is undoubtedly a bit depressing. The NHS is creaking at the seams, Thomas concludes, and runs above all on the sense of duty and faith that its employees share. Yet it is also a weirdly comforting experience to watch. In the midst of everything going to shit, it is nice to know that there are people like Thomas who remain passionate, committed and ultimately optimistic about ordinary human beings.
Mark Thomas: Check Up – The NHS at 70 is on tour until May 4. For information, or to book tickets, click here.