'Doctor's Dilemma' review or 'The Titanic in reverse'
'The Doctor's Dilemma', Bernard Shaw
National Theatre, Tuesday 24th July
Written for The Ham & High
In the early 1900s the theatre critic, William Archer, claimed that Bernard Shaw could not be considered a great dramatist until he wrote specifically about death. 'Doctor's Dilemma' was borne of this bet. It's no surprise, then, that there's a distinctive macho swagger to this lesser-known work. It's as if Shaw is flexing his dramatic biceps and inviting others to fawn over them.
The characters – almost all doctors – are lively, ridiculous and colourful souls, ripe for comic plucking. Each doctor is as self-involved and silly as the next. Malcolm Sinclair, as Sir Ralph Bloomfied Bonington, is deliciously pompous. He spits out his consonants, as if even the very words he utters are beneath him. Surgeon Cutler Walpole (Robert Portal) swoops about like a musketeer, striking valiant poses and constantly twizzling his moustache.
Aden Gillett plays the one relatively sensible character, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, and it his dilemma around which this play revolves. When a beautiful lady implores Sir Ridgeon to cure her dashing but dastardly artist husband, the doctor is caught in a moral conundrum. Should he save this talented artist or focus his efforts on his less dazzling but much more decent friend?
It is a simple plot with a straight-forward purpose: to expose the innate injustice of a Public Health Service, dictated by the whims of overpaid and often under-educated doctors. Initially, the jokes fizz with vicious purpose but the repetitive punchlines wear ragged. There's no avoiding the fact that this is an old-fashioned and slightly creaky piece. Hell, the first half even ends with the line: 'It's a dilemma. It's a dilemma.'
It could've all felt rather flat, were it not for some outrageously extroverted performances, tight direction (Nadia Fall) and flashy design, from Peter McKintosh. At one point, the doctor's surgery set recedes to the back of the stage and a dining table, with the doctors seated around it, emerges from below. It's a bit like the sinking of Titanic, only in reverse, and reminds of another incident in which private wealth was unjustly used to buy what should have been universal safety.