With a sharply relevant production of Timon Of Athens already running at the National Theatre, we can only hope that the programming of Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma does not prove to be as timely.
Set when the rich could afford the chance to live and the poor must beg for a doctor’s mercy, it’s a depressing premise but one that Shaw peppers with black humour and a set of amusing characters with comically differing intellects.
The play opens in the plush surgery of Sir Colenso Ridgeon(Aden Gillett), a newly knighted doctor who claims to have found a cure for consumption. As a host of fellow doctors – or quacks as they may soon transpire to be – arrive to offer their congratulations, so does the enthralling Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O’Reilly), wife of a talented artist who makes up for with skill what he lacks in character.
As Dubedat begs for a cure for her husband’s tuberculosis, Ridgeon, with only room for one more man on his treatment programme, finds himself faced with the dilemma of who is most worthy of saving.
On one hand is his old friend Dr Blenkinsop (Derek Hutchinson), an impoverished GP with the highest of moral codes and the inability to burden himself on anyone, but with no talent. On the other Louis Dubedat (Tom Burke), an anti-morality blaggard, womaniser and egotistical charmer who possesses artistic genius; goodness pitched against ability.
Both a philosophical drama and charged love story, Shaw’s play begins with a rather dry insight into the world of early 20th century medical men but takes flight when the Dubedat’s are introduced, so at odds are they with the old boys club discussing their ridiculous theories in Ridgeon’s surgery, which comes complete with doctor essentials; chesterfield sofas, cigarettes and booze.
Burke is perfectly cast as the not so tortured artist, talking in circles and out intellecting the stuffy doctors, draped over a day bed like a off duty rock star while they prop themselves up with walking canes and boarding school posture. His performance is perhaps only rivalled by Malcolm Sinclair who steals every scene as the pompous Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, whose stiff upper lip and over pronounced speech would have him more at home in Dad’s Army than a doctor’s surgery.
With elegant design by Peter McKintosh, director Nadia Fall’s production is as classy and visually beautiful as you would expect from the National Theatre, but with the play only ever skirting around issues that are affecting our ever-more complicated medical institutions today, it never quite meets hopeful expectations of relevancy.