★★★ TRAUMA, ITV Great performances by John Simm and Adrian Lester, but Mike Bartlett's in too much of a hurry
When you’re hot, you’re hot. In the past two years Mike Bartlett has had the following works staged or broadcast: Wild, a play about Edward Snowden at Hampstead Theatre; Albion, a three-hour neo-Chekhovian state-of-the-nation play at the Almeida; an episode of Doctor Who, a TV version of his play King Charles III, 10 hours of Doctor Foster, and now the hospital drama Trauma on ITV. Of the last three he was also executive producer, as he is of Press, a six-hour BBC One drama he’s been writing about the newspaper industry.
It’s an astonishing rate of productivity, to compare with the Stakhanovite output of Jack Thorne, who also commutes between TV and theatre. Great writers both, but their sheer ubiquity must grate on the nerves of other scriptwriters and playwrights struggling to get a break. And then there’s the question of whether some of the work might usefully spend more time stewing in the pot.
What was best about 'Trauma' was the Rolls-Royce performances of its two leads
Trauma completed its three-hour, three-night vigil on Valentine’s Day, which is probably a coincidence rather than a sick scheduling punchline. It arrived on the heels of the high-profile case of Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, who much to the dismay of many doctors was struck off after being convicted of manslaughter. So Trauma has merit as a timely examination of a profession under ever greater pressure as the culture of customer satisfaction, and the growing distrust of expertise, subjects performance to scrutiny.
What was best about Trauma was the Rolls-Royce performances of its two leads: Adrian Lester as top surgeon Jon Allerton and John Simm as grieving father Dan Bowker, whose son Alex was stabbed and later died on Allerton’s operating table in the trauma centre. In other hands it might have become a bureaucratic drama about judicial process, but Bartlett went instead for the jugular as the grieving father, believing his son to be the victim of a moment’s malpractice and having no faith in officialdom, opted for a more retributive reckoning. By the final episode, Bowker had wormed his way under the skin not only of Allerton, but also his psychiatrist wife Lisa (Rowena King) and his daughter Alana (Jade Anouka, pictured below with Adrian Lester) and, all too easily, shaken the foundations of their faith in the man they lived with.
Bowker’s grief transformed into grievance as he relentlessly matched his own poor life chances and those of his children against Allerton’s accumulated wealth. On the psychiatrist's sofa, he delivered an aria fizzing with bitterness about not having enough Twitter followers. In a less impeccably liberal version of this drama (in which Alana might not emerge from the closet quite so frictionlessly while symbolically clambering up a sheer rock face), the success story would presumably be the white British professionals. The fact that the Allertons were statistically less likely to have inherited their good fortune was barely thought of. Whatever fuelled Bowker’s anger, race wasn’t anything to do with it.But what did fuel it? The drama hinged on a moment of, it would seem, truth, when Bowker looked into Allerton’s eyes and decided that he was lying. While the grief of his wife Susie (Lyndsey Marshal) believably spilled over before speedily receding, he transformed into a cool-headed, clear-thinking psychopathic stalker with a frankly implausible gift for dissimulation. An eye for an eye, a lie for a lie. It also oiled the wheels of the drama that he could ghost through doors into places he wasn’t meant to be. What ever happened to hospital security? No matter what the cost to realism, Bartlett needed to get Bowker into the trauma centre in order to set the two men up in opposition to each other.
Dan’s mad, misdirected grief – and his weird refusal to focus on his son’s murderer – didn’t quite merit the time lavished on it. The problem with Dan was that his obsession, his trauma, was quite boring, as was made clear to him by his wife, and he was somehow unlikeable: the consolatory 30 quid whip-round from his colleagues said as much. It made it hard to buy into the spouting geyser of his class rage, or believe in his godlike ability to penetrate the dark recesses of Allerton’s psyche.
And so the drama hurtled to the showdown. Lisa did what no psychiatrist (or psychotherapist, which is what she really was) would ever do - let a client who turns up on her doorstep into her home. Alana, 17 and suggestible, suddenly matured into a capable hostage-siege negotiator. Eventually the dialogue grew woolly and sub-theatrical: “You think you’re a good man,” hollered Bowker in the garden while brandishing a knife. “You’re arrogant and it’s very, very important you realise that.” Allerton’s real moment of truth was to feel no remorse for kicking some sense into Bowker after his integrity was impugned and his family infiltrated. Who could blame him?
With each climax expertly timed to arrive just before the break, Trauma may have gripped. But it afforded itself too many that-wouldn't-happen plot shimmies. In its eagerness for confrontation, this revenge drama felt surgically imprecise.