Doors burst open, monitors bleep, people yell for assistance, beds are raced into position and, criss-crossing the wide-open stage, actors narrowly avoid crashing into one other. The superbly choreographed opening ensemble rush of “Tiger Country” so convincingly captures the urgency of hospital life that everything that follows has the zing of authenticity. The same length as a couple of episodes of your favorite medicated soap but with considerably more depth, Nina Raine’s play rigorously examines a host of doctors’ dilemmas.
There are almost as many linked themes as there are characters, and with almost all the actors doubling, that’s a lot.
In the midst of it all, Raine deploys the standard expository device of having a newcomer entering the world of the play. Mercifully, however, junior doctor Emily (Ruth Everett) is almost never saddled with typically naive questions asked solely so that audiences can be filled in. Indeed, it only gradually becomes clear that hers is the play’s through-line.
Surrounding her are Thusitha Jayasundera as short-fused Vashti. A female surgeon looking for promotion in the National Health Service hospital, Vashti struggles with arrogant male juniors, notably Pip Carter’s arrogant Mark.
On Vashti’s level is cardiologist John (enjoyably exasperated but kindly Adam James) who is in denial about a growth on his neck. There are also careerist consultants, long-suffering and surly nurses, even an assortment of patients.
Appropriately enough for a play set partly in an operating theater, Raine knows exactly where and when to cut. Unnecessary preamble is ruthlessly excised in favour of punchy juxtapositions of tightly written scenes. She’s intent on depicting the diverse pressures of a non-stop, often sleepless, emergency room existence where doctors are not allowed to make mistakes. The sheer pace is startlingly impressive.
On Lizzie Clachan’s effective set, given life by Fergus O’Hare’s soundscape, Rick Fisher’s isolating pools of baleful, institutional light and Dick Straker’s video splashes of surgical procedures, even the scene changes – run by the cast – embody hospital life. Indeed, for the first half, the dynamism of Raine’s own production appears stronger than the thrust of her writing. Yet the payoffs of the more dramatically sustained second half prove exactly how much groundwork she has quietly been laying.
Although we see exhaustion and hierarchical tension sour the relationship between Emily and her more senior doctor boyfriend (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), Raine refuses to go down the standard soap route of pushing sex lives to the fore. “Gray’s Anatomy” it ain’t.
From “Dr. Kildare” to the BBC’s “Casualty” – 24 years and counting – medicated soaps have never been in short supply, largely because they literally present life and death dramas. But TV, by its very nature, goes for the closeup – the tears and forbearance of, say, a patient being given a fatal diagnosis.
But Raine eschews heartwarming resolutions to such a crisis and instead constantly pulls back to the equivalent of wideshot to present the doctors’ perspective as they deal with the need for and impossibility of perfectionism, the corrosive management systems, the ever-present sexism, the danger of resources squeezed to breaking point.
Coming three months after her Royal Court hit “Tribes,” Raine’s third play might be too specifically British – and big – to have immediate stateside success, but it proves her to be well and truly on the map.