53two (Deansgate Locks, Manchester); Monday 24th April 2017.
How much data about you is out there, and do you know how it’s being used and by whom?
Commissioned by a consortium of university and NHS bodies, SBC Theatre delivered an evening of performance and debate that aimed to get to the bottom of this and many other unnerving questions of how patient information is handled by the NHS.
Manchester’s newest performance space, 53two, is an unusual but interesting mixed-use venue. Situated in the murky arches and tunnels beneath the GMex exhibition centre, this was once a car showroom but it now provides a cosy and intimate environment for small performances such as this.
The evening began unusually, with the audience being given an instruction manual upon entry, as well as large red and blue voting cards. Host for the night was TV and radio personality Tom Cheesewright, who immediately put the voting cards to use in the bar before the performance began. Suspicious glances danced around the room as strangers stared down strangers, everyone silently raising Blue or Red – thus revealing their personal views on various big questions of data sharing and privacy. Before the play had even begun, I was very certain, with a monumentally large dose of prejudice, that I really did not like some of my fellow audience members.
The play itself was provocative, lasting around one hour. Ray Ashcroft and Hannah Butterfield played out the roles of a father and daughter. The old man has The Nest installed in his house – an all-seeing, Orwellian artificial intelligence system that monitors his every move: it suggests what he might like to watch on TV; which songs he might like to listen to; it even offers to buy him milk when the fridge detects he’s running low. The tech-savvy daughter is keen to ensure that her father has an easy life, free of trouble, so that she can get on with more important things like updating her Facebook profile. Father and daughter debate the good and the bad of it all, both seem to change their minds in the end.
With the pertinent issues raised, the play ended and gave way to an open debate, one where audience members were invited to participate along with the event organisers. What followed was lively but somewhat chaotic: a few more uncomfortable questions leading to votes being cast and counted; an interruption from the audience because of a perceived lack of distinction between data sharing and data processing; and a general grumbling, snarling atmosphere of “I just don’t trust anybody”.
In the end the complex issues of data governance in the NHS remained unresolved (not that this particular evening was ever going to get to the bottom of it). Host Tom Cheesewright astutely spotted that it had been at least 90 minutes since anyone last had the chance to drink away the hatred in the room, so he rightly suggested that proceedings should move back in to the bar for the debate to continue / escalate. At that point most people just went home.
It was a funny end. I don’t think I’ve ever left a performance with a mild, nod-your-head indifference to the actual performance but with a ferocious, gritted-teeth hatred for my fellow audience members and everything they stand for.
As a result, as an evening’s entertainment: I can’t complain, it definitely kept me amused.
In terms of the effectiveness of theatre as a tool for cracking the big question(s) on NHS data sharing: definitely not. Aside from the obvious question about why NHS money is being used to commission a play, one can’t help but draw an analogy to the currently incessant, useless and fruitless debate over Brexit – everyone’s got an opinion, no one has any answers, some people hate each other, others are just sick of it, most people don’t truly understand all of the issues, etc. The message to the NHS is the same as that which was presumably given to David Cameron on the morning that he resigned: “If you’re going to ask a silly question…..”