Let the Bodies Pile review – awkward effort to hold government to account over Covid

Hyde, Manchester, in the 1990s. Frank and Georgie’s 78-year-old mum has just died while in the charge of local GP Harold Shipman. Was Frank, her live-in carer, partly to blame for surrendering her to the care of “Dr Death”? Fast-forward more than 20 years, and we find Frank mute and motionless in a Hyde hospice, in the charge of Justine, a not-so-tender carer.

Henry Naylor’s two-hander (his co-star is Emily Carding) spans the two periods, and dramatises Justine’s experience when NHS patients are transferred to care homes early in the Covid pandemic. Was that act on the part of the UK government really all that different from Harold Shipman murdering 250 patients or more?

If that strikes you as a dodgy moral equivalence – well, me too. I bow to no one in my loathing of the Tories, but Let the Bodies Pile (the phrase was reportedly Boris Johnson’s) lets anger cloud its judgment – if not ethically then artistically. In its best moments, the play raises questions well worth asking about care and responsibility, and about how we look after our elders. It does us all a service, too, by forcing us to confront what actually happened in care homes like these, the Russian roulette staff were forced to play (or not, in negligent Justine’s case) when end-of-life caring in PPE made from duvet covers at the local church.

There’s an urgent and compelling Covid play in here, but it is ill-served – in this draft, at least – by the Shipman parallel. There is too much wink-wink dramatic irony (“Matt Hancock’s got this!”). And Naylor’s insistence on getting his strident message across bulldozes credibility – when Frank wakes up from a 20-year vegetative state to start speechifying about the government’s pandemic policies, or when Justine has lurid sex dreams about the health secretary, which feel like they’re from a different (cartoonish, comic) play entirely.

Props to Naylor for trying to hold ministers to account for their carelessness in 2020 – and for interrogating the wider societal values that enabled that. But good intentions can’t redeem this unconvincing play.

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