Stephanie Silver’s aim when she wrote The Monologues of a Tired Nurse was to give audiences “a brutally honest account of how it feels to work within the NHS in a understaffed, underpaid and emotionally draining time”. As a nurse herself, it’s a feeling she knows all too well, and though her characters are fictional, it’s clear throughout that the play is coming from a very personal place.
Brutal is an accurate word to sum up the show, which sees newly qualified nurse Emily grow gradually more and more dishevelled and distressed (not to mention covered in various unmentionable body fluids) as she realises actually being a nurse is considerably tougher than she expected. Her mentor, the older, wiser and much more experienced Sally, tries to toughen her up, not because she enjoys being mean, but because when you’re working in acute medicine, there’s no time to stop, worry, think (or eat, sleep, breathe…) – you just have to get on with it and hope for the best.
The play, directed by Simon Nader, makes a political statement about the increasingly limited resources available to the NHS, placing ever more pressure on the already stretched staff and putting patients’ lives at risk as a result. Stephanie Silver’s Sally has grown used to working under this pressure, but that doesn’t mean she’s okay with it – her monologues reveal a bitterness and world-weary honesty; if she could go back, she tells us frankly, she’d choose a different career. She’s done her fair share of crying over the years, but these days she just smokes and drinks, puts the tough days behind her and moves on, because she has no choice – if she breaks down, the patients will still be there needing help, and if she’s not there to offer it, then who will?
Makenna Guyler’s Emily, on the other hand, is young and idealistic, and hers is a personal rather than political viewpoint. She went into nursing for a very specific reason, inspired by a traumatic family history and lingering sense of guilt, but her fear of cracking under the pressure means she repeatedly does just that. Despite her brave attempts to claim that getting a thank you from a patient makes the long hours and emotional turmoil all worthwhile, her bright smile begins to crack more and more frequently. The harsh fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, wanting to help – however desperately – may not be enough.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these difficult truths, it’s impossible to leave the theatre without a new respect and admiration for anyone in the nursing profession. Put aside any misguided beliefs that nurses are just there to hold hands and empty bedpans; they have to make life or death decisions every single day, and that responsibility alone – even with limitless resources at their disposal – would be enough to break a lot of people.
The growing crisis in the NHS is well documented, and we’ve heard a lot in recent months about the struggles of junior doctors to keep up with ever-increasing workloads – but nurses never seem to make the headlines, despite being an equally essential part of the health service so many of us take for granted. The Monologues of a Tired Nurse aims to remedy this, and does so with unflinching honesty. It’s not pretty… but it certainly packs a punch.
The Monologues of a Tired Nurse is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 19th October.