‘NHSmackdown’ at VAULT Festival review – Candid and hard-hitting account of NHS life wrestles with its many brutal blows


NHSmackdown is a hard-hitting testimony of the multiple challenges NHS staff have to wrestle with on a regular basis, and it doesn’t hold back – literally, as the crisis with which most of us are already familiar is recounted in stark detail through the thrilling and novel medium of wrestling. Yes, really.

And it totally works. If the physical fights between nurses and politicians, illnesses and mental health problems aren’t enough to leave you winded and gasping in shock, then lead performer Lawless’ real experience of working in the NHS – including patient abuse, debilitating working conditions and their time in resuscitation – certainly will. Verbatim testimonies from other health professionals (refilmed with actors) are also projected onto a side wall as Lawless crashes around the ring. Both make an impact.

There are, admittedly, a few moments where the pacing falters. Blackouts last a little longer than expected, prompts are quietly given to Lawless, and there’s a handful of instances where they seem uncertain about commentating on the wrestling matches from the sidelines. It’s a tad disorientating, but I’m not going to be too critical of Lawless when they’re juggling the physically demanding art of wrestling with the emotionally taxing act of sharing personal traumas experiences while working in the NHS.

Similarly, their anecdotes are told without the theatrical flair one would typically associate with a standard play or monologue, but it works better with a candid delivery. The statistics and harrowing trauma speaks for itself, and is more than dramatic on its own. The show is so confident in its presentation and handling of the subject matter (Lawless reveals they may well get fired for their part in the show due to NHS rules on political statements), yet some slow transitions between scenes and other snags mentioned above indicate a lack of confidence with the routine – as shown by Jill checking the script in the corner of the stage.

Though as I say, the contents of the show – and thus the script itself – is stark and unrelenting. Even a supposed fun ‘break’ in proceedings is an opportunity for Lawless to share a slideshow of some of the most unfortunate objects to be found stuck up a patient’s orifices – a string of nails found in the urethra (Google it) is as wince-inducing as the wrestling.

As all of this unfolds, and the nurses have to fend off a string of challenges, there may well be an inclination to hope for a greater triumph for good over evil, or a positive conclusion to a truly tumultuous time in the NHS, but NHSmackdown is commendable in questioning the superhero and soldier narratives deployed by politicians underfunding the health service, and emboldened by doorstep claps. Both require a sense of resolve in the face of considerable barriers, yet what this punchy production lays bare is that the real conflict – if we are to use such language – is actually the fight to establish such resolve to carry on in the first place, to get up again after yet another devastating knockdown.

NHSmackdown played at VAULT Festival on 26 February.

Production Images: Lawless/Wrestival.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘NHSmackdown for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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