Henry Murphy: Epidemic – a sick musical of immense proportions

Effort *****
Value for money *****
Entertainment ****
Public health education **
Price: Free

One of the perks of being the Clegg Scholar is that you get forwarded details of events that clash with the busy schedules of other BMJ staff. After three members of the editorial team turned down the opportunity to review a musical about public health, I rather gleefully accepted two Friday night tickets. For technical accuracy, I took “The Blonde,” an actress who helped write down stuff in my reporter’s notebook.

Epidemic is “a project of immense proportions” about obesity, mental health, and ageing, engineered by the Old Vic, New Voices community project, and supported by the Wellcome Trust and Guys and St Thomas’s charity. The show is the result of 18 months of research and rehearsal by a team of 200 local people, including an alternative therapist and a nurse.

Giddy with self importance, I started to wonder whether the BMJ team had set me up as I approached the theatre, located down a scruffy, graffitied alley behind Waterloo Station. The tunnels are a dank subterranean lair of arches, owned by Network Rail (presumably where passengers travelling without their student rail cards were sent for interrogation and punishment). I think the theme is shabby chic. The theatre itself, however, is appropriately dramatic, with huge vaulted ceilings, subtle lighting, and a champagne bar. The cool air was a welcome change from the heat of the day.

The performance was a sell-out. We settled down around the thrust stage (“a thrust has the benefit of greater intimacy between performers and the audience”) and the show began.

The plot focused upon three characters “lost” in the system of the NHS, who elope to Norfolk in a stolen mobility bus to discover themselves. They become a social media “epidemic,” prompting the government, the manufacturers of a drug in question, and the mass media to respond defensively.
I’m not quite sure what I’m meant to say next. It’s hard not to like a musical that features electric wheelchairs, free sweets, and musical numbers such as “Bugger the bankers!!!” The audience clearly were given value for money, laughing, and singing along at the appropriate moments.

My issue with the project was its over-ambition. How can you give enough time to themes including, but not limited to: being a patient with mental health, obesity, or dementia; dependency, responsibility, consumerism, the perceived role of religion, the media, the internet, doctors, the government, the pharmaceutical industry, and the NHS? The characters affected by obesity and ageing, respectively, were given just one solo each to voice their story (admittedly impressive and memorable ballads). The themes had a rather large stage presence that nearly overshadowed the actors attempting to grapple with them. However, the writing team hit each topic with spot-on staging. Marlon, the main character with psychotic depression, fought his black dogs on a leash; the operatic and obese Lawrence sang of his nature-versus nurture aetiology; when the demented Iris waltzed on the beach with a former lover, we were nearly in tears.  The pervasive theme was voiced by one character: “We’re a sick nation aren’t we?”

I suppose it’s not a bad thing to have wanted more, and a musical is a great platform to make public health more accessible. For comparison I’ve never been to a “sell-out” public health lecture at university.

“The Blonde” had things to say about the production, but I don’t want to be too serious about a community project. I’m no theatre critic, but for me, Laura Prior was a sensation as Marlon’s sister, tormented by guilt and abused by the media, with a powerful voice and real emotional depth. This project gave a platform for some great aspiring actors and singers, notably Carrie Carr as the hilarious, jazzy editor of the Evening Standard, and Sirena Riley, the sinister pharmaceutical CEO with a great smile and a gospel-choir voice.

The set designers were outstanding in their ability to breathe life into the challenging scenes; highlights included the mobility bus; the teeming London streets complete with Boris bike; their depiction of the “Twittersphere;” and a magical, jaw-dropping moment when the actors ran through a screen onto Cromer beach itself.

As a medic, I felt a bit like my take-home message had been forgotten. Should I send my patients to Norfolk to find themselves? I know this wasn’t staged specifically for medics, but we both came out wondering how informative the project had been. For me, perhaps it was all a bit “Glee,” as in “Let’s sing away our worries!”…”Lets give the misfits a voice and fight ‘The System!’” However, the programme tells of the true value of the experience for those involved, with a crew-member writing candidly about fighting the stigma associated with her own mental health condition.

The audience had a competitively entertaining Friday night, which is impressive considering we were in central London. It was no “Wicked,” but Epidemic was pretty sick, in a good way.

Henry Murphy is a BMJ Clegg scholar.