From hunting down a patient’s lost teeth to witnessing someone turn away potentially life-saving treatment, scriptwriter Shey Hargeaves’ experience of working for the NHS was eye-opening to say the least. Reflecting on her time in a hospital, Shey shares tales of resilience and humour in her hour-long show Sick.
“It’s scary!” Shey exclaims as I ask what it has been like leading a one-woman show for the first time. “You’re totally on your own out there. But, it’s quite nice because you’re in control. That means you can play off the audience more. I think that makes for quite a warm, responsive kind of show.”
The stories behind Sick are authentic accounts from the four-year period Shey spent working for the NHS. Having completed a Master’s in Scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia, Shey was looking to find work when she came across a receptionist position for an Emergency Medical Assessment Unit in 2013.
“If I had to be in a reasonably low-paid job and pay the bills, doing something that vaguely makes a difference to people’s lives would be nice,” Shey explains. Shey held the position at a turbulent time of austerity for the NHS One change that stood out, after working on the ward for a year, was the sudden strict monitoring of overseas visitors using emergency healthcare.
“Obviously it’s not America and people are not turned away when they need help but there was definitely a crackdown,” Shey recalls, remembering the morning she was told off for not alerting staff that a patient was from abroad.
Almost overnight, it became a requirement to ask emergency patients where they were from, which Shey was uncomfortable with. The tightened measures meant that Shey saw one 70-year-old visitor from India resisting treatment for a brain tumour after fearing for its expense. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t have to police our healthcare,” the scriptwriter declares. “No human being has total control over what’s going on with their health at any given moment and, if policy in this country results in even one person being afraid to seek treatment and dying, that’s one person too many.”
It was while witnessing the immediate effect of policy changes and spending cuts for the NHS on the desk of the unit that the idea to share first-hand accounts through theatre came to Shey. Yet, she held back from writing the show until hearing how the NHS was faring from an external perspective, having left it in 2017 to care for her baby.
“What drove me to write it was a 50-50 split between feeling desperate to do something about it all and that this is what I’ve trained to do. I’m not saying a theatre show is going to change the course of our health service but I had to do something.”
Shey applied for funding from the Arts Council to produce the show, which has been touring since Autumn 2018. “I put the application in, buggered off to Australia, didn’t think I’d get it – I didn’t even take a laptop with me I was that convinced that I wouldn’t get it – and then I got it! I was like ‘Oh, hell!’ and madly started scribbling down stories I remembered on bits of paper.”
On return to the UK, Shey met with fellow scriptwriter and mentor Molly Naylor to discuss how her tales from working at the NHS could be transferred to the stage. “She started asking me questions about how it affected me personally and that’s how that kind of story emerged.”
Although Shey was reluctant to star in the show herself, she now accepts why Molly was keen for her to do so. “It is more powerful for it, more honest.”
In spite of the regular grave situations on the ward, Shey was determined for the wit and warmth of NHS staff and patients to be reflected in the show. “Although the show sounds like- and does- have a lot of quite heavy scenes, at the end of the day, it is entertainment,” Shey comments. “It is fun and friendly and people have laughed a lot while watching it, which is really important to me.
“How can we discuss such heavy stuff if we can’t do so in a way that is also entertaining and engaging?”
To find out about tour dates for Sick visit http://www.sheyhargreaves.com/
Image Credit: Shey Hargreaves