Review: The Monologues of a Tired Nurse at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

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.

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Monologues of a Tired Nurse

Who better to write a play about what it’s like to work for the NHS than someone who does it every day? Stephanie Silver was inspired by her own professional experiences to write Monologues of a Tired Nurse, which has its final run this week at the Lion and Unicorn as part of the Camden Fringe.

“I’m a nurse and have been for the last eight years,” says Stephanie. “I was working on a cardiothoracic intensive care for a while; it can be a tough environment. I was going through some personal problems and having some episodes of feeling very down about my job. I sat down and wrote some monologues to get some feelings off my chest and Tired Nurse kind of happened.

“It’s a brutally honest account of how it feels to work within the NHS in a understaffed, underpaid and emotionally draining time. The stories are fictionalised, but based on real life encounters of how it feels to be a nurse or any another healthcare professional working in today’s health service on an emotional and personal level.”

The show’s been in development since 2015, since Stephanie performed it at one of the first ever Actor Awareness scratch nights. “It’s changed a lot since then,” she says. “Even after performing it at Edinburgh 2016, we changed it up for the London run at Baron’s Court in 2017. I want it to be as visceral and engaging as possible to really grab the audience’s attention, and the director Simon Nader has always been fantastic in bringing the vision of the piece alive.

“Nurses definitely relate to the play. Anyone who works in the public services in any capacity, whether they are a teacher, policeman, fireman or army officer, can relate to the level of pain and stress in the play and the feelings of never being good enough, especially in the current climate with all the cuts and pressures to work faster and be more efficient but with twice the work load. An army veteran told us in Edinburgh it was some of the most honest accounts of working on the frontline he had seen – that meant a lot.

“I’d like people to see the human, the person behind the professional. I’m sure most people do but the papers and government spin so much crap that it is infuriating. Health care professionals aren’t cogs or robots, they’re people trying their best. And if you want a great health service providing the best care then please look at who you vote for and how you treat the people you meet at point of service. Make a conscious effort to invest in our healthcare in more ways than just saying, ‘I pay my taxes, so I am owed this’.”

After doing some acting as a child, Stephanie trained as a nurse before returning to theatre as an adult. “When I was ten I was in Goodnight Mister Tom, a TV film, and then at 18 I did a summer course at The Poor School, but after that thought I couldn’t afford drama school so I should do a sensible job, and kinda just stayed until I turned 28! Then I thought fuck it, time to probably do some acting before it’s too late. I also had a brain haemorrhage, which soon makes you realise that if you keep leaving things you might be dead before you actually get to do them!

“Juggling the two jobs is doable. Must actors have many jobs, it can feel like two very different worlds! Mainly it’s hard work, long hours and no sleep. I hardly see my friends but I’ve been trying to work on balance. I don’t waste time, I write everyday, and I do one thing everyday for my acting, whether it’s write an email or read a bit of a play or watch something to inspire me. I also do emails on the tube, on the toilet – anywhere really. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?! My mum always says that!”

As well as writing and performing in Tired Nurse, Stephanie’s also set up Glass Half Full Theatre, a company dedicated to creating daring, provocative work. “I really love writing and find it rather depressing waiting around as an actor so decided to produce my own writing,” she explains. “I’m not very well connected as I come from a zero theatrical background, so I got involved with Actor Awareness and met a lot of like-minded people looking to create work. At one of their first scratch nights, I performed Tired Nurse. I asked a mate along and then we decided due to the amazing response to take it to Edinburgh. That was financially not a great idea but it was one of the best experiences.

“I also got heavily involved with Actor Awareness and realised that there a lot of actors just not working – a lot – and what a brilliant thing if I can produce work. So I created Glass Half Full, dedicated to creating thought-provoking contemporary plays with a strong social, political, ethical, domestic backbone; plays with messages aimed at a young demographic, about the world we live in today and the kinds of world we could live in. So hopefully we are making thought-provoking challenging plays. Fingers crossed!”

Glass Half Full have lots of exciting plans for the year ahead: “This is our last run of Tired Nurse as we’ve been doing it for the last year. The immediate aim is to look to produce our show Walk of Shame for EdFringe 2018. I also produce new writing nights every so often. Hoping to do one of those in September so keep an eye out on Twitter, the event is called A Series of Short Plays – we did the first event in May, and it was a great night so we aim to be back with that but with a twist!

“We also have a play called Our Big Love Story, a story of racism after the July 2005 bombings which we are getting on its feet for production in 2018. That’s enough to get on with for now…”

Catch the final run of Monologues of a Tired Nurse at the Lion and Unicorn from 16th-19th August.

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Actor Awareness

Stephanie Silver is a London-based actor and producer at Actor Awareness, a campaign fighting for equality and diversity within the arts set up by Tom Stocks in 2015. The campaign’s come a long way since then, and the team are now preparing for their second New Writing Festival, a showcase of original work taking place from July 17th-22nd at London’s Barons Court Theatre.

“Actor Awareness is about trying to create a level playing field,” explains Stephanie. “‘All the world’s, a stage and all the men and women players’, right? Well, it doesn’t seem like it in the acting world. We have a long way to come on many levels, but fundamentally Actor Awareness is a campaign to make a fairer industry, so on stage and screen there is a diversity in roles as well as the actual stories being told to audiences.

“As we’re a small campaign with minimal financial resources, we do what we can. We started out with scratch nights – as an actor it’s more important to be the driver behind your career and to create opportunities, a massive ethos here at Actor Awareness, so the scratch nights were a natural step. Our first few scratch nights we got like four submissions and even sometimes had to write the odd play to fill in the spaces! Now we get nearly 100 submissions; we get more and more every call out.

“We’re now sponsored by Spotlight for the scratch nights and we are the only scratch in London that pays – we’re pretty proud of that. The event also adds a credit to any actor’s CV, which helps their Spotlight submission, and it’s also in the heart of the West End, a casting melting pot so an ideal place for agents or CDs to come. We’ve had quite a few people signed from the events, we had producers come down to check out plays and many people have gone on to write more of their show and take it elsewhere. It’s also just a great night to meet like-minded people and have a pint.

“We started film nights at Spotlight, where we choose short films and do a screening. This is a new venture and one we hope to continue. Tom also works extensively behind the scenes doing loads of admin stuff and talking with Equity, Spotlight, Labour MPs and other industry professionals. Now Actor Awareness are the patron of a new drama school, North 8 – a school designed to help people who can’t afford the ‘typical’ three-year £40,000 BAs! So we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Stephanie got involved with Actor Awareness in 2015 after responding to a request for someone to do a blog. “And then because I’m a busy body I started helping out more as the campaign grew,” she adds. “Tom and I are good friends now, we get on – he’s hilarious and we trust each other. When the campaign grew Tom asked me to take on the scratch nights; new writing is something I have a real passion for so I jumped at the chance and I’ve been doing them for a for a while now!

“I love reading everyone’s submissions. It’s something I really look forward to and it’s helped me grow as a writer myself, constantly reading plays makes you sharpen your own tools, so it’s a win win. I always remember plays too, so sometimes I might message someone if I remember a play and want them to re-submit, or I think it has potential so I’ll email them to ask if they have more. Other times if I have the time I’ll provide some feedback, which they can take or leave, no offence taken. I’m also producing the New Writing Festival in July; I can’t wait. I like to organise, so just call me Tom’s organiser!!”

Stephanie’s passion for the campaign and its goals is clear to see. “I truly believe in it, because it gave me a real sense of purpose and drive to really make something happen, for myself and helping others,” she says. “The message of equality is one that should be shared in every walk of life, not just theatre. I think art is inherently important for growth on a human and social level, therefore no matter what your class or finances you should have access to it. We get a lot of people come to us disheartened and sometimes bitter with the industry, and it’s nice to give people an energy and focus and watch them do something they love and remember, ah yeah, I actually love doing this, finding that spark and passion to go out there and be noticed. We’re giving people confidence in themselves or the knowledge of where to go, who to speak to, what grants to look at or theatre to talk to, and enabling people to make some sort of pathway or step towards their next goal.”

Among many favourite moments, the scratch nights stand out as particular highlights: “To be honest every scratch night just gets better and better, the talent just seems to blow us away every time! There’s a few shows that have really grabbed both me and Tom. There was Injuries of Class by Paul McMahon which was stellar, and I got to show a short play of mine called Our Father, it got a standing ovation which really made my entire life!

“I also enjoyed our workshop in Manchester, that felt really good moving outside of London and reaching people out of the London hub. I’d love to do workshops like that all over the country. We got teams together and people who didn’t even think they could write had short plays by the end of the workshop. That felt very good.”

Next month’s New Writing Festival follows a successful first event last August at Theatre N16 in Balham. “We invited six of our most popular shows that had come through our scratch nights and asked them to write one hour of material to showcase,” Stephanie explains. “They all rose to the challenge and it was a success. One of the plays – The Staffroom by Michelle Payne – is going to Edinburgh this year and is also having a run at Queens Hornchurch Theatre. The new writing weeks are a chance for us to invite back really promising plays to get audience feedback. This year I want to make it bigger and better, so I’ve invented the ‘Press Pass’, a magical pass for any industry professionals, artistic directors, producers and reviewers to have access to all shows all week, to try and get more feedback for our artists.”

And it sounds like there’s plenty for us to look forward to. “Ah we have so much! I’m so excited for everyone. We have a real mix of comedy and drama and real contemporary issues and some proper working class themes. I selected them on their writing merit first and foremost. I chose pieces that I’d seen and knew went down well on the scratch nights – we normally have a pint at the pub after scratch nights and you get a good buzz about what plays really went down a storm. I also, like any night or event I do, try and create a varied programme.

Worsooz is a play that was shortlisted for the Papatango award in 2016, very excited about this one. C’est La Vie won an international open submission in Australia and was produced out there after being one of Actor Awareness’ first ever scratch pieces way back in 2015, so pretty excited about that too. 2022 is a hard hitting contemporary piece about a Muslim ban, this is set to be fab. Submission is a spoken word piece that had Tom welling up at the last scratch, about being gay and Muslim. We have several fab comedies: Come Die with Me, which British Theatre rated 5 stars, and Speciman.

“I’m really excited about Walk of Shame, which is a very brave play about consent. It showcased at our women’s scratch night; I was asked to direct it and I just fell in love with the story and the character. After working on it as a director I got my writing hat twitching and went away and wrote some material which I presented to the original writer of the piece. We then decided to write the play together and I’m stoked to show people what we have hashed together in such a short space of time! We also have The Staffroom returning to perform their Ed fringe preview at the end of the week!”

Looking further ahead, there’s plenty more to come from Actor Awareness: “Firstly we have open submissions for our next scratch night, which is on a political theme – submissions can be sent to stephaniefrancescap@hotmail.com. We also have the Actor Awareness documentary coming out soon! It has many actors – people such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh – talking about the class ceiling in the acting industry. It’s a real eye opener and something Actor Awareness has been working on for a while.”

Finally, what can the rest of us do to support Actor Awareness in their campaign? “The shows are a great place to mingle and Spotlight members go FREE so it’s a pretty sweet deal,” says Stephanie. “But you can also connect with us via social media. We do a lot of this as it’s a free tool and reaches widely – we’re on Facebook and Twitter (@actorawareness) which is where we post all castings and any upcoming events. We keep it this basic so anyone can join in, hear about us, and no one pays anything either – actors have enough to pay for! We sometimes join up with companies like CCP and do competitions. We’re pretty chilled, you can write to us anytime and we can chat. Tom and I are pretty open, so just holla.”

Find out more about the Actor Awareness New Writing Festival (17th-22nd July) or follow the campaign on Facebook or Twitter for news and updates.