I don’t often go to the theatre and when I do I tend to spend time furtively writing a shopping list or wondering whether my husband will agree that intervals were invented to enable escape to the nearest restaurant. I’m not proud of my philistine tendencies, and blame a childhood diet of Shakespeare. My mum loved him, and thought it best if we read every word of every script before going so we’d really know the story. It was agony.
It is perhaps odd then that when not in Oxford, one of my other work pursuits is as Scientific Adviser to a theatre company. Y Touring, just turning 25 years old, enables audiences to explore and debate difficult and sensitive issues in medicine and health through theatre.
I first worked with them in 1996 on Cracked, a play which tackled mental illness. I was sceptical they could take Cracked into schools and convey such complex and distressing topics sensitively to 14-16 year olds. But Y Touring succeeded: I will never forget one youngster coming up to me after a performance, heartbreakingly grateful, at last feeling someone understood what he was going through as carer for his very ill mother. Since then I have worked with Y Touring on topics from animal experimentation to stem cell research, advances in neuroscience to clinical trials (more on our work with this play, Starfish, soon). And so it was that on Monday evening I was watching their latest production, Hungry, and thinking a lot about food, but certainly not planning my interval getaway.
By acclaimed playwright Sarah Daniels (she’s also written for Eastenders and Holby City) Hungry is a comedy (as bitter as it’s sweet) about two very different but interwoven families. It explores under-nutrition, diabetes, obesity and the debate around sugary drinks. Susan Jebb, Oxford’s Professor of Diet and Population Health is on the Advisory Board and we are looking at how we might bring the production to Oxford.
The play has been seen by more than 10,000 people since January and, as so often with Y Touring’s work, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. As one teacher wrote “First class high quality drama and performance. Professional manner and genuine educational commitment. Thanks.”
I too thought it was terrific. Fast-paced, edgy, provocative and with a brilliant cast, though I did flinch slightly at one point when I was contentedly imagining taking it from a trendy theatre space round the back of London’s King’s Cross station to the hallowed halls of Oxford. My thoughts perhaps best summed up by one teacher who said “…there was too much swearing and the use of the f-word was not appropriate….” In a tactful concession to all tastes, Y Touring does offer performances with and without swearing. But heck. Surely we can cope, even here in Oxford? My mum would have reassured me, muttering contentedly from Henry lV part 1 “You starvelling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish–O for breath…”