Stitched Up

When an NHS surgeon leaves a pair of scissors inside a patient, his moral compass spins out of control in Rosemary Jenkinson's excellent play at the Lyric Theatre

Stitched Up is a play about putting a human face on larger moral questions. Its two protagonists are dwarfed by ambitious moral principles: Aidan (Richard Clements) is an NHS surgeon who has fended off endless petitioning to go into private practice from his materialistic wife, Kate (Roisin Gallagher).

For her part, Kate is an idealistic go-getter whose mission to bring down the peace walls, despite the usual sectarian disapprobation, is finally coming to fruition. 'Will we get David Hasselhoff in a cherry-picker?' asks a facetious Aidan. 'No, but we can get Brian Kennedy in an ice-cream van,' she replies, tartly. She celebrates her victory by taking out a loan on a new kitchen.

It all feels like a bourgeois paradise of big ideas and bigger wage packets. But the bubble is about to be pricked by a small pair of scissors, specifically the small pair of scissors that Aidan has left inside a patient. He is suspended and, one month later, makes a statement to the press blaming the accident on the 'endless check-list of forms and the increasing bureaucracy of the NHS'.

The moral compass of Rosemary Jenkinson's play for c21 Theatre Company at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast spins on whether there is anyone that Aidan will not operate on.

He claims that there is nothing, no creed or fanatic’s position, that would stall him in his work: he sees no colour and has no politics – it is a luxury a surgeon can ill afford. He even quotes, impressively, his Hippocratic Oath to further underline his moral stance. He is tested after a midnight call sees a wounded rioter pitch up at his door demanding he remove a chunk of something metallic from his stomach.

What follows is a rather wheezing farcical episode, wherein Kate sweeps in early from her successful fundraiser, shouting, off-puttingly, 'Shamazeballs!' and finds the prone figure of the thug, Ruairi, (Darren Franklin) hiding under her 'good Irish linen'. It’s as much of a comic set-piece as this play will allow, the rest of the humour coming from irony and the recitation of local place names, though the 'only a little prick' line, for each injection Aiden gives, is assayed an impressive three times during the course of the play.

The real problem is the viability of the plot. Aidan has no political affiliations. Would somebody involved in what is implied to be sectarian violence (Ruairi describes himself as 'pretty politically active') scan the newspapers looking for defrocked surgeons to attend to their wounds? Where would they get his number? And most of all, why would a doctor potentially at risk of being struck off for negligence risk further injury by operating on someone on his kitchen table, without proper equipment, decent pain management and access to his medical records. Aidan is once bitten, but twice up for it.

These characters, blessedly, are not one dimensional. When we first meet them it looks as if Aidan might be the traditional weak male and Kate an aspirational Lady Macbeth, willing him on into acts of naked greed, as long as she can get her red-tipped fingers on more expensively uncomfortable shoes. Happily this is not the case.

As the story continues and their situation worsens, the pair weather the storm, with Aidan displaying an impressive vulnerability and Kate literally throwing away the trappings of her materiel success (the Jimmy Choos are off and skidding across the stage, though she adds, quickly, 'Oh, I hope I haven’t damaged the heel').

The actors are all excellent, with Richard Clements' wiry and frazzled surgeon a warm and believable central figure. Roisin Gallagher has the most to do, weaving around Clements, sparking off him, and acquits herself well, getting most of the laughs as well as most of the dramatic flashpoints. Darren Franklin, meanwhile, manages to flesh out his rather flat role into someone likeable, despite the circumstances in which we meet him.

So, what have we learned? That it is not the notion of the ailing NHS that Aidan rails against, but the bureaucracy that clogs the workings, the blame culture that the accountants live in fear of, the lack of money being flushed into the system and the pressure being placed on the hard working doctors at the centre of it all. I don’t think anyone would disagree with any of that. Except, apparently, those people we have elected into government.

Stitched Up runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until February 21 before touring venues across Northern Ireland.