By Lucy Komisar
When I go to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as I have for the past five years, I know I want to see Mark Thomas at the Traverse. That theater is Edinburgh’s most politically important year ˜round stage, and Thomas is always the most prescient writer/performer.
This year was a “checkup” of the National Health Service, established 70 years ago and under constant attack by right-wing politicians who don‘t think people deserve health care (and life), unless they can pay for it. It is based on interviews with experts in and about the NHS. He talks about what‘s wrong in the NHS and how it might be fixed. Always assuming people have the right to life, even if they are not rich.
This show may seem surreal to people in a country (the US) whose political leaders (like the British right-wing) don‘t believe people have the right to life outside the womb. (Right to birth, not to life.)
A working-class guy in black short sleeve shirt and brown pants, Thomas‘ schtik is a combination of stand-up comic, earnest activist, investigative reporter. He is very serious, very smart, very engaging and passionate.
I loved his story of the mining town where the company put up cottages with electricity but kept the switch. It went on at 4:30am, wake up, go to the mine, off 9:30 pm. Go to sleep to get ready for work. Control a step away from feudalism.
He tells how at that time, couples put aside a penny a week. If someone fell ill, there was a discussion if the person was ill enough to pay for a doctor. The NHS was created by the Labor Party to end that fear. Comprehensive for everyone and free. In the first two years, 17 million people got eyeglasses. A third of population could see and read for first time. He says, “My grandmother was one of the first.” (Please check the figures for the US.)
On a recent government payment to the NHS, “Only the Tories could use our tax money and call it a present.”
Thomas is 54. He imagines what could happen to him as he gets older and ill. He shows on site video and interviews.
He takes us through A&E accident and emergency trauma centers. At St. Mary‘s hospital, people frantically working to save lives of stabbings, cyclists hit by cars, an epileptic: it is classless, they are treated the same.
He interviews a reviewer of health inequality: main determinants of health are the first 8 years of a child‘s education and unemployment anxiety: the poor live with ill health and die younger. Taking the Holborn tube line that bisects London, life expectancy drops a year for every station to the east: 22 years less for people next to Grenfell, the high-rise that collapsed, than for people next to Harrods. He declares, “We are robbing people of years from their lives.”
Some health outcomes are set by industry. The chief medical officer for England tells him 700,000 people a year die because antibiotics are not effective. Most are used in the meat industry, because that is cheaper than hygiene.
He says, “Sugar is trainspotting for middle England,” a reference to the film about people hooked on drugs. “It kills more than cocaine, and one of the companies is even called silver spoon!”
The country loves the NHS. Nurses are shown dancing at the opening ceremony of the UK Olympics which saluted the NHS. Big PR. But the corporations don’t love it. There was legislation to abolish the NHS structure in the middle of the 2008 corrupt bankers’ recession.
The goal, Thomas said, was privatization. The NHS had to bid on contracts! It often lost to sophisticated companies that could write a proposal but cared more about their profits than service.
He said the NHS was not all perfect. There‘s an outcome on breast cancer not as good as elsewhere in Europe. He didn‘t discuss it, but money cuts mean mammograms for the age group at risk are given every two years, not every year.
When does a political talk become theater. When Mark Thomas does it.
Mark Thomas: Checkup. Our NHS at 70” Written and performed by Mark Thomas; directed by Nicolas Kent. Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland. Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Aug 5-26, 2018.