The pressures of modern life and the availability of professional help for those in need are the issues at the heart of The Punter, the debut play from Liverpool novelist Deborah Morgan.
GP Margaret (Denise Kennedy) keeps her patients at arms’ length, not only simply to get through each day’s crippling workload, but also to avoid confronting her personal problems. Nicholas (Graham Hicks) is a hypochondriac taxi driver who is about to push her patience to the limit as he bids to overstay his strict ten minute appointment.
When an emergency calls the doctor away, Nicholas offers her a lift, giving the seemingly odd couple a chance to reveal more about the situations they find themselves in and ensuring their paths will continue to cross.
There are playful moments in the dark humour of The Punter, exploited most brilliantly in a superb performance from Graham Hicks, who captures wise-cracking Nicholas’s vulnerability and heart, and ensures the audience laugh at the absurdity of the situation and not at a complex character struggling with his mental health.
The contrast between the lifestyles of the two characters is compelling, with issues of class and gender subtly never far from the surface. On top of a demanding and draining job, Margaret has a young son with special needs and must also care for her ill mother, a sign of the times and a woman’s struggle that it might have been nice to see explored even further. The climax of her woes, at the start of act two, is played for laughs rather than big emotion. It is a study of two people’s experiences of a system at breaking point, rather than a politicised look at the state of the NHS.
There is much to enjoy in Deborah Morgan’s rich script, with Hicks and Kennedy given several poignant moments to shine. Margaret’s defences start to break down as she describes her son’s laughter, and Nicholas’s comparison of his fluctuating mental state to an unexpected bite down on a ‘rogue Malteaser’ is a highlight. Director Tim Lynskey (of Liverpool’s Big Wow) injects an energy and physicality into the two-hander that further enhances the piece.
The Punter will return to the Unity Theatre this autumn.