Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 10 October, 1994

The programme photographs of Sam Walters' 1979 production of Doctor Knock are almost indistinguishable from his 1994 version, yet the world has changed in 15 years. The temptation is to interpret this revival as being intended to make a comment upon the currently hot issue of public health care.

Such connections are at best specious. Jules Romains' 1923 comedy (presented here in Harley Granville Barker's pithy translation) deals with an ambitious doctor who sets out to make a success of a small-town practice and ends up effectively creating a cult of hypochondria in order to maximise his own takings. Hardly a relevant comparison either to private health insurance schemes (which collect premiums when the customers aren't ill) or NHS trusts (which would seemingly rather do without the patient altogether). Nor does Walters' direction succumb to the lure of social punditry. He is concerned wholly with a finely told, amusing yarn, which for the most part he serves diligently.

The cards are stacked against the sleepy burghers of St Maurice from the start; the villagers are little more than a collection of stereotypes (grinning bumpkins, effete schoolmaster, snobbish grande dame etc) ripe for exploitation by Doctor Knock. Geoffrey Beevers' Knock is a masterly creation: flattering his clients, gulling them into feeling non-existent illnesses and subtly interrogating them as to how much they can pay for treatment, all in an easy flow of urbane imperturbability. Knock's confidence in his own aptitude is unshakable: to his near-equals (of course, he can admit to having no true peer) he shows a brisk candour regarding his enterprise while just as craftily enlisting their complicity simply a more refined class of snow-job.

Within three months Knock turns his brand of medicine into a religion of fanatical daily observance throughout his little realm, rhapsodising about lamps to him burning into the night at patients' bedsides and envisioning "250 rectal thermometers lifted in unison and firmly inserted" as a perverse mass salute. At this point Walters and Beevers over-egg the pudding by imbuing Knock with moments of barking megalomania culminating in a final rubber-gloved Nuremburg tableau. It is apparent enough that the man's steely determination has both trapped and unhinged him without resorting to such coarse touches.

Doctor Knock sits comfortably within the Orange Tree's prime constituency: a craftsmanlike production of a neglected work, chosen for entertainment rather than argument. It may not be easy to fathom why Walters is so repeatedly drawn to the play (he first staged it in 1967; Beevers has played the eponymous role in all three productions), but each new audience will no doubt find it agreeable enough.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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