Image credit: Thomas McGlynn.
Deborah Morgan’s dark comedy The Punter, directed by Tim Lynskey, takes us deep into a world where doctor’s appointments are ten minutes tops and pills need to be persevered with even when they’re making you feel worse, not better. Margaret is an overworked local doctor on the edge. Her only friend is Jim, a skeleton who smells suspiciously like Hugo Boss Red. Her last punter of the day is Nicholas, a taxi driver who is teetering dangerously close to the edge of sanity himself. Clinging onto Jim’s bony hands for dear life, these two chalk and cheese characters are about to fall into the blinding white world of hospital corridors, budget cuts, and Dr Google.
Denise Kennedy, playing Margaret is a wide eyed, exhausted mother running on stress and fear and running out of patience with her patients. Graham Hicks, playing Nicholas, tries it even more as he demands new pills and uncovers the internet research that has shown him the truth about medicine and her advice. Constant phone calls from the babysitter about her injured little boy and messages about her ailing mother who needs to move out of the nursing home right now, leads to Margaret spending more than the allocated ten minutes with Nicholas in his taxi and putting her and Jim’s life into his hands, which aren’t on the steering wheel most of the time.
The two actors have an effervescent chemistry between them as they talk to each other, over each other, to themselves, and to Jim. The effect is a bizarre combination of realism and surrealism that creates a natural true to life atmosphere that is oh so familiar, tragically funny, and will make you laugh out loud and then weep over the shaky road the NHS is on – and what will be left for future generations if it doesn’t change direction soon.
It takes real skill to make a political point in the theatre without standing on a soapbox screaming “I am making a political point” as you beat your audience over the head with it. Deborah Morgan has achieved just that through a combination of dark humour and familiar references. The patient’s point of view is echoed nicely with what might be the less familiar point of view of the doctors working on the front line, who like the patients, are only human. Subtle use of repetition is a nice allusion to the same thing happening day in, day out, to the many doctors and patients up and down the country.
Deborah Morgan’s writing looks at two highly complex characters, struggling their mental health, finances, home lives and the system, while staying thoroughly entertaining and making a poignant point about life in and around today’s NHS.
A beautiful tango between Jim and the two actors leaves Margaret questioning whether she is in the right job and clear Nicholas’ head in a way pills never could.