Review: The Greatest Wealth, Old Vic

Paying tribute to the NHS in its 70th year, the specially-commissioned monologues of The Greatest Wealth made for a great night at the Old Vic

“It’s a wonderful idea
It’s a marvellous idea
It’s such a very good idea”

It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be here but for the NHS – it changed my life as a young boy, it saved my life as a teenager who didn’t look both ways. A story I imagine which finds resonance with so very many of us in the UK but as this venerable institution marks its 70th birthday, it finds itself under siege more than ever. So what better time to reflect on what has been, what is and what yet might be for our National Health Service.

Curated by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Adrian Lester, The Greatest Wealth took the form of a series of specially-commissioned world-premiere monologues, each responding to a particular decade of the NHS’s existence. Exploring the myriad ways in which it has become an integral part of the social and economic fabric of the nation, it proved a varied and thoughtful evening.

Highlights for me were Meera Syal’s Rivers, a sensitive but searing look at the experience of the Windrush generation in the 1960s, the extent of the grace under pressure that was necessary to put up with virulent racism whilst caring for people at their most vulnerable. And Matilda Ibini’s Choice & Control, performed by Ruth Madeley gave powerful voice to the life-enhancing opportunities that NHS provision has offered to so many.

Plus any night that contains the many talents of the likes of Sophie Stone, Dervla Kirwan and the heart-rending Jade Anouka can’t be too bad. The programme was threaded together with snatches of glorious song from Gloria Obianyo (who made me actually want to hear ‘Angels’ again, only her version though) and Dylan Townley at the piano. And translated with real quick-footed brilliance by BSL interpreter Jenny Peters, dealing adroitly with a fair few line calls from the guys, all part and parcel of these kinds of events.

And then bringing the whole thing together with a sprinkling of unexpected magic, Seiriol Davies’ musical contribution – The Nuchess – was a heartfelt tribute that was a perfect bookend. Delivered with a warm cabaret flourish by Louise English, its wry sense of humour and the direct, clear-eyed sentiment of its chorus (quoted up top) encapsulated the evening perfectly. Reminding us of how much we have gained, reminding us of how much we stand to lose.

1940s: Boo, by Jack Thorne, performed by Sophie Stone
1950s: At The Point of Need, by Paul Unwin, performed by David Threlfall
1960s: Rivers, written and performed by Meera Syal
1970s: Sister Susan, by Moira Buffini, performed by Dervla Kirwan
1980s: Speedy Gonzales, by Lolita Chakrabarti, performed by Art Malik
1990s: Family Room, by Courttia Newland, performed by Jade Anouka
2000s: Choice & Control, by Matilda Ibini, performed by Ruth Madeley
2010s: The Nuchess, by Seiriol Davies, performed by Louise English

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