Review – Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre

I don’t believe it – two good plays in a single year. In a row. First the charming Becky, then the intense Tiger Country. North London is on a roll. This bodes badly for the rest of the year.

Tiger Country is the new play from Nina “Tribes” Raine. Set in a hospital, it follows a group of mostly junior doctors as they grapple with their responsibilities, limitations and relationships. In a sense this is extremely well trodden ground, for TV even if not for  the theatre, with ER, Casualty, Holby City and, my favourite, Emergency – Ward 10 all covering similar themes. There are similar points – we get the rushing around and heart shocking of ER and the relationship angst of Holby – but there’s a lot more here that just that.

Photo: Hampstead Theatre
What Raine’s script and direction delivers is a superb ensemble piece of theatre, which focuses on the themes of mortality and powerlessness. Ruth Everett’s Emily, the closest thing we have to a central character, struggles to accept the necessary imperfections that her boyfriend (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) somewhat patronisingly insists are inherent to the job they do. Vashti (Thusitha Jayasundera) is a model of calculating efficiency, but her fear – manifested through the plight of a relative – is never far below the surface. Pip Carter, after a lacuna on the light side returns to form in his traditional role of pure menace as the uncompromising junior surgeon Mark. Adam James – why doesn’t he get more recognition as a brilliant stage actor? – is very good as always as the cardiologist struggling with his own mortality. The performance are universally excellent – and that’s not something you can say very often.

What is so difficult usually in ensemble works like this is to stop it feeling anecdotal and jumbled, to stop the characters being indistinguishable whilst also not letting them descend into caricatures. This isn’t Emily’s story – it’s all of their stories – but it doesn’t feel watered down or impersonal. Raine and her cast really nail it.

As well as a beautiful ensemble piece, this is also an incredibly uncompromising play. From the testicle removal operation we witness in the first few minutes, to the stroke victim or the dying cancer patient, this makes for an involving and unflinching account of life and death – I suspect from my reaction that my choice not to pursue a career in medicine has been proved the right one. Even at its most quiet and unassuming, Tiger Country is involving – there is a moment of quiet during the second act that is one of the most tense experiences I have had in a theatre.  And if even silence can be affecting, then this play really must be doing something right.