Live Review: Mark Thomas: Check Up – Our NHS @ 70, Arcola Theatre, E8

Mark Thomas is one of radical comedy’s national treasures so it feels apt that in his latest show he is looking at another national treasure, the National Health Service. The difference between them is that while Thomas appears to have so much energy he looks like he might go on forever, the NHS is becoming an endangered species.

The veteran campaigner always does extensive research when putting together his shows, which are latterly a hybrid of heartfelt theatre, passionate stand-up and Ted Talk and this is no exception. He spent time in ground zero A&E departments and hospital wards and talking to experts. He clearly did a lot of background reading too as he knows his subject inside out. From its post-war origins when it suddenly and amazingly made healthcare free to everyone, to the present day when it is being privatised not just by the back door but probably by the side entrance too.

Thomas gets his message across with a mixture of expert testimonies – some on film, some recounted – and his trademark self-deprecating humour. One running gag recalls his own recent medical assessment when he asked his doctor what he might be at risk of now that he is in his mid-fifties. Pretty much everything apart from the menopause is the inevitable but no-less-amusing answer.

Of course anyone who follows the news should know about the struggles of the NHS. Even though Theresa May has recently pledged a fair bit of cash it is only a sticking plaster - and, as Thomas wryly observes, why is this government calling it a gift when it is our tax money anyway?

We all love the NHS and we all think it does a fantastic job, but Thomas points out it is not always so great. There are plenty of global medical league tables where the NHS languishes in the relegation zone. Poverty is a factor as well. The richer you are the longer you tend to live. Obviously ploughing more money in would help, but how much money does it need?

The issues are complex and he knows it. It is not just (under)funding and mismanagement under previous governments that is the problem, the NHS is a victim of its own success. As modern medicine keeps people alive longer that means there are more treatments needed. It’s like a human payday loan, never getting any smaller however much you pay off.

In some ways Thomas is stating the flipping obvious, but by deep-diving into the subject he drills down and brings the problems to the surface in sharp focus. What he finds is pretty damning, pretty horrifying and pretty scary. Though at least with Thomas around there is laughter too. Comedy, if not the NHS, is in safe hands.

Dates and tickets here.


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