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Birmingham Rep to host For The Past 30 Years by the Now Women & Theatre company

Innovative theatre company, Now Women & Theatre, marks its 30th anniversary at Birmingham Rep with a production of For The Past 30 Years, discovers Roz Laws

Actors in new production For The Past 30 Years, Lorna Laidlaw, Hema Mangoo and Janice Connolly.
Actors in new production For The Past 30 Years, Lorna Laidlaw, Hema Mangoo and Janice Connolly.

These days, employees are considered long-term if they have been in the same job for five years.

Working for 30 years is quite an achievement in the current climate of internships, zero hours contracts and disappearing pensions.

Now Women & Theatre mark its 30th anniversary by talking to women who have also been doing their jobs for three decades.

The result is the Birmingham Rep production For The Past 30 Years, which shines a light on the impact that economics, key events and government policies have had on the working lives of women.

It is an award-winning Birmingham-based company, led by Janice Connolly – who is also stand-up comedian Barbara Nice – who is one of its founders.

It has pioneered ways of addressing social issues since 1984, delivering more than 5,000 performances everywhere from bingo halls to doctors’ surgeries. It has tackled topics as wide ranging as homelessness, domestic violence, drug use and road safety.

For The Past 30 Years is a collection of six monologues, created from interviews with more than 50 women who have been working for 30 years or more in the fields of health, theatre, education, community, probation and business.

The production is, naturally, an all-female affair.

The writers are Polly Wright, Naylah Ahmed, Stephanie Dale, Katy Knight, Stephanie Ridings and Hannah Silva.

The directors are Tessa Walker and Caroline Wilkes while the actors are Janice Connolly , Lorna Laidlaw (best known as Mrs Tembe in Doctors) and Hema Mangoo.

Polly Wright, one of the original founders of Women & Theatre, wrote the health monologue, performed by Janice, charting the changes, both good and bad, in the NHS since 1984.

She says: “We made a decision to talk to people at a high level in the NHS because we thought they would have gone through such a lot of major changes and been responsible for some of them rather than just been subject to them.

“We talked to people who had moved through nursing in the 1970s and up through the ranks, and who had often been battered from pillar to post because of political decisions.

“My monologue is made up of lots of women’s experiences but is spoken as if from a very senior nurse, who works somewhere like the Queen Elizabeth Hospital but not the QE.

“There have been big changes in the number of women in higher positions over the years, but has that actually changed the culture?

“My piece addresses things that have gone horribly wrong like the Mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal of poor care and high death rates.

“But it also looks at some of the incredibly good things that have happened over the years.

“One of the things that stood out is how absolutely fantastic the NHS is with cancer treatment these days, with the use of high tech equipment plus great expertise and compassion.

Women and Theatre present For The Past 30 Years, with one of the monologues written by founder Polly Wright.
Women and Theatre present For The Past 30 Years, with one of the monologues written by founder Polly Wright.

“Also, it’s lovely to see how utterly dedicated to the job people have been all that time.

“We are very lucky to have the NHS – my parents didn’t – and everyone talked about their passion for it.

“I really got a sense of public service, of how people went into the profession because they wanted to do good and help other people. I don’t think that’s always the case now.

“For a lot of women in the NHS, the changes have been about moving away from a regimented, very ordered profession, very practical and hands-on, to a more overseeing role that’s much more complex managerially.

“Several people felt that might have led to the Mid-Staffordshire disaster, because of the lack of adherence to guidelines and not being so hands-on.”

Polly, 63, from Kings Heath, also drew on her personal experiences of the NHS.

“My mum had a terrible time in a hospital down South when she went in with a very bad nose bleed.

“I was really shocked by what I perceived as careless attitudes and mess.

“She had to wait for 12 hours, in incredible pain, and they wouldn’t give her any drugs until she had been admitted. I felt it was inhuman.

“I do worry about the poor treatment of old people. One doctor I interviewed said that’s where the NHS is failing people.”

Polly is a teacher, working mainly in adult education. Part of her work is at University of Birmingham in the medical school, teaching students doctor and patient communication.

That’s one thing which has changed considerably in 30 years, with doctors encouraged to explain more about treatments and patients asking more questions.

Polly says: “A lot of emphasis is placed on communication today. However well the student doctors do in their exams, if they fail that part of their assessment they can’t get through.

“Women & Theatre has made some contribution to this training. We did a play called Christine Goes to the Doctor, which was meant to be one for a week but we ended up doing it for 10 years.

“It was tremendously popular, all about a doctor not picking up any of the cues that a single parent patient was giving her. It was funny and moving and picked up by several doctor training organisations.”

* For The Past 30 Years is at Birmingham Rep from October 9-11. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

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