Photo: Luca Pau
The specific issues in Hilary Spiers’ First Do No Harm may be decades old, but with the ever-current debates around the NHS and equal pay for women still at the forefront of the news, this period piece proves surprisingly relevant. Set in the shadow of Lloyd George’s reforms of health and welfare services and the struggle for universal suffrage, the play dramatizes the struggles of two couples; one conventional and wary to changes (the Ridgeways), the other a suffragette and her panel doctor husband who drive the events of the story (the Leggits).
When Dr. Leggit and his wife move into a community in the Fens, they are regarded with suspicion; the feud between the doctors escalates to a tragic climax that leaves the audience wondering at the futility of a war where both sides have similar goals, yet different approaches.
At the same time, we get a glimpse into the plight and bravery of suffragettes, and receive a disturbing insight into the so-called Cat and Mouse Act (really The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913) where suffragette prisoners on hunger strikes were released once too weak, only to be imprisoned as soon as they were healthy again, perpetuating a ctycle of starvation.
In this production by Tea and Tenacity, director Caroline Frewin makes excellent use of the small performance space; props serve double- and triple-duty to evoke different scenes and locations, and the sparse, yet effective, set allows the central conflicts to receive full attention. Meanwhile, the players move back forth from spotlight to sidelines, signified by chairs at the sides of the stage, as the scenes demand. This is the type of bare bones, stripped-down theatre that puts the focus - and the pressure - on the actors and the words.
Luckily, the performers take the pressure with ease. As suffragette Maud Leggit, Miriam Edwards exudes a natural exuberance and charisma that contrasts well with the more reserved and acerbic Harold Leggit, played by Lee Garrett, while her scenes with Bella Hamblin (playing Rachel Ridgeway) show an easy chemistry between the two actors that makes it more bittersweet when their tentative friendship crumbles. Both Hamblin and Howard Scott Walker (Dr. Ridgeway) pull multiple duties as several supporting characters, and manage to delineate between them competently.
First Do No Harm was at the Nottingham Arts Theatre on Tuesday 20 September.