It’s 7.03pm and the start of a 12-hour shift for paramedics Lisa and Sylvia. At the front line of the NHS, they see people at their most vulnerable, plunging into their lives at critical moments and throwing them a lifeline. For first-timer Lisa it’s a mix of terror and excitement; for Sylvia, on her last ride out before taking up an executive-level desk job, it’s about getting making a difference one more time. For the audience of five sitting in the back of the ambulance as it drives around the city, it’s an immersive and intimate experience that captures the intricacies of human interaction within a debate about the state of our beleaguered healthcare system.
Although we never see Sylvia (Sarah Woodward), apart from briefly through the loading bay doors as she pulls on her boots in readiness for the shift ahead, she is a constant presence through our wireless headphones as she shares her wisdom and weary resignation with Lisa (Lloyd-Saini). With us in the back of the ambulance, Lloyd-Saini delivers a masterly close-quarters performance, utterly convincing as the nervy newbie trying to shake off the self-doubt while preparing for the worst and at the same time radiating the warmth and empathy that will make her an exemplary paramedic if she makes it through the night intact.
Projections on the inside of the doors witness the streets sliding by, the roads and pavements growing dim and lamp-lit as the early evening slips into the desolate early hours. As the calls come in – a possible heart attack, an accident with a razor, a glassing outside a nightclub – we hear the 999 operator calmly talking to a young girl worried about her daddy, listen to Sylvia reassuring a 15-year-old boy about an embarrassing domestic incident and the panic of a bride-to-be after her fiancé’s drunken brawl.
For each situation, the ambulance reverses to a stop, its rear doors opening to reveal domestic scenarios that represent the calm after the storm, once the paramedics have intervened and administered medical aid, a comforting word, a gentle hand. Each audience member is encouraged to get out of the ambulance and interact with the different scenarios, and while this underlines one of the piece’s key themes – our natural compulsion to help and comfort those in need and the tenet driving the establishment of the NHS – at the time they seem somewhat dislocated (it’s only on reading the script after the show that I fully understood what was going on in these episodes). Only one, a frail elderly woman alone on a bed, clutching flowers and photographs, connects most effectively with what we hear over the headphones.
Also glancing into view at the periphery of these scenarios, before pushing himself fully into the narrative, is cyclist Ben (Russell Woodhead), who introduces another strand to the story but also serves to illustrate the interconnectedness of things, of lives and events and moments. It’s a clever device in a satisfyingly multi-layered and well-written piece that offers hope as well as hurt. That reminds us of the unlimited capacity for kindness we have at our disposal.