Tuesday, April 23

The Doctor – Duke of York’s Theatre

Almeida Theatre’s production of Robert Icke’s The Doctor has now transferred to the West End. The play begins as Professor Ruth Wolff, founding member and director of the Elizabeth Institute, which undertakes groundbreaking research into Alzheimer’s, is caring for a young girl in the final hours of her life. A Roman Catholic priest demands to be allowed to perform final rites to the dying girl on the grounds that her parents are Catholics. The Doctor refuses, on the grounds that the girl’s religious beliefs are unknown, and the presence of the priest would disrupt what would otherwise be a peaceful death. An altercation ensues, the consequences of which have profound consequences both for the Doctor and her institution.

Around this simple event Icke has written a most fascinating, engaging and relevant piece of theatre, which exposes many of the social fault lines in our modern society. There are almost too many issues in this play: identity, race, colour, religion and sexual orientation.  Above all, the key issue of whether since we all live in overlapping groups, can we define our existence separately from them? This is especially relevant in a world where rumour and pressure can be exerted by people through social media, with minimal effort, who know little, if anything, of the substance.

These issues are important.  There can scarcely be an institution in the country which has not wrestled with the question of whether they should promote on the basis of professional competence or to maintain some social balance dictated by changing modern norms.

Juliet Stevenson in the role of the doctor is superb. Coolly authoritative and professional, she demonstrated underlying fragility in her private life. The power of her performance was particularly demonstrated during a scene when she was taking part in a TV/Radio discussion, with her face projected to enormous size in twin images which revealed every twitch of her responses and reactions. She was well supported by the rest of the cast with special mention of Chris Osikanlu Colquhoun in the role of Copley, one of the senior medical staff.

Doctor Wolff is a stickler for proper use of grammar and at one stage, delivers a diatribe on the differences between literal and figurative language which should be part of the school curriculum!

Icke has taken the deliberate decision to have most of the characters played by actors of different genders and skin colours to those of the parts themselves. Whilst this was an intriguing device which underlined the message of how we see each other in predefined groups, it did make the play confusing, particularly in the initial scenes.

The setting was a simple, large semi-circular wooden walled room with a long table and benches, forming, variously, the rest area in the Institute, the Boardroom, Wolff’s home and the television studio, without any set changes. The only prop was a kettle.

This is a play about ideas and words and requires concentration. It was, therefore, a pity that the production included some unnecessary distractions, for example, the slowly revolving stage used in some scenes which added little but did mask some actors. I also found the music, some of which was performed live by a percussionist, seated high above the back of the stage in full view of the audience, playing a regular beat through much of the production, irritating and another distraction.

This is a novel, important and powerful play which deserves to be widely seen and the issues in it to be seriously discussed.

The Doctor continues until 11th December, see https://tinyurl.com/yckmkeaw for further information and tickets.

Reviewer: Paul Ackroyd

Reviewed: 7th October 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★