By putting the medical profession under his ingenious microscope, George Bernard Shaw has fashioned much more than a play that gets under the skin of the private/public healthcare debate: by journey’s end the frequent reality of genius artists still being revered (and forgiven) despite behaving like selfish scoundrels in their non-artistic affairs is once more confirmed.
The most unwelcome but pivotal guest in the playwright’s tale of doctors playing god is tuberculosis. Two men have contracted the deadly disease; one will survive.
Louis Dubedat (played with a convincing air of shameless self-entitlement but lacking the deep subtext of Oscar Wilde “flair” by Jonathan Gould) has an abundance of talent with the brush (just ask him) but is fast-approaching death’s door. His blindly supportive wife, Jennifer (Krista Colosimo is the epitome of devotion but requires a tad more naïveté to fully balance the challenging role) sees only the good in her brilliant spouse. The couple’s cash-flow problems are remedied in the short term by her resources and his demands for loans from whomever crosses their path; but not to worry: the proceeds from Louis’ first one-man show will repay all debts and secure the future—if only he lives to see it.
Also fighting the breath-ending bacilli is Dr. Blenkinsop (a typically nuanced performance from Ric Reid). No stranger to poverty, the good doctor (“has the lines made by a conscience between his eyes”) seizes the opportunity of a just-announced knighthood to visit a longtime colleague and offer his best wishes.
The freshly titled physician is Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Patrick Galligan gives a fine performance as the troubled scientist, yet is robbed of a great finish by the over-the-top decision by director Morris Panych to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as a stunning revelation destroys Ridgeon’s much-anticipated hopes for personal satisfaction). The fifty-something bachelor has impressed the medical establishment with his development of a treatment for TB. Trouble is, timing is everything: if the required injections find the “up” side of the cycle, then the patient is cured; if “down,” funeral arrangements can be made at once.
Thus, the dilemma: Ridgeon’s life-giving elixir has been produced in a limited quantity. Already fifty cases had to be whittled down to 10 (opening the door for discussions on several occasions as to who deserves to live; seems the Royals have some value even in Shaw’s critical thinking). Taking on another new case will condemn one of those already selected to certain death. What’s a miracle worker to do?
Happily, because of the recent honour, Ridgeon is surrounded by two esteemed colleagues and a blood-lusting surgeon. Sir Patrick Cullen (a wonderful combination of wisdom and irascibility from Michael Ball) is the sage voice of reason; his retirement from practice allowing him to speak his mind without fear of reprisals (“Chloroform has done a lot of mischief. It’s enabled every fool to be a surgeon.”). Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington is still very much engaged in their common field and is not at all modest about his considerable achievements. (With a marvellous echo of M*A*S*H’s David Ogden Stiers, Thom Marriott delivers a note-perfect portrayal of a man who believes his own press releases and, tellingly, is unable to define “scoundrel”.) Cutler Walpole’s (Patrick McManus) obsession with blood-poisoning even manages to find its curious way onto the canvases of the “Doctors” exhibition, showcasing Dubedat’s craft and expertly created by designer Ken MacDonald, whose studio set, larger-than-life paintbrush silently speaks volumes about artistic largess and over-sized ego. With advisors of that ilk, what could possibly go wrong?
Panych along with his cast and crew have combined their many talents and produced a fast-moving show (the scene changes and tableaus are especially inventive), yet the final resolution of the love element seems at odds with the playwright’s masterful dissection of the inoperable heart. JWR