“Patient is a Verb” is not your usual trans-storytelling. It’s an edgy, innovative show that keeps you excited just as much as while watching “Mission Impossible” or “Indiana Jones”. The use of a simple metaphor of a video game turns the play from personal storytelling into an epic quest and opens up the story to a larger audience. Burning Attic puts the “fun” in this long, dys”fun”ctional process that many trans patients have to go through.
The performance spotlights a typical process that a trans patient has to go through in the UK, on a mission to fight the scary monster, Dysphoria. The game is illustrated in an Atari-like style from the very beginning: it’s a “level 0” in itself to create your avatar because the non-binary choice in one of the fields messes up most of the strengths. It only gets more difficult from there: getting a referral letter to the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) is a hit and miss, depending on the kind of GP you meet, but even once it’s done, the letter just gets lost, stuck and may never arrive. And that’s when the real waiting starts – currently, the waiting list for the clinic is on average 5 years long…
“Patient is a Verb” creative team could have decided on many stage set ideas, but they ended up with a brilliant choice of keeping a screen with a projected video game animations as their main stage piece. The screen is also used to keep the show accessible for various audiences – there is a transcription displayed at the bottom of it, and it was mentioned that the audience is free to move and leave at any moment – I was thrilled to see this! It’s always a nice touch to see fringe productions adapting good practices for accessibility this way.
The material was developed after interviewing 18 trans people across the UK about their experiences accessing trans healthcare and the waiting process that leads to it. And even though it’s not a verbatim show (it uses fictionalised characters and plot to explore the costs of medical transitioning and of waiting in a broken system), it does feel touching and ridiculously energetic at the same time.
I have to praise both the cast and the creatives here: “Patient is a Verb” doesn’t just describe the difficulties, but highlights the uplifting friendships and the support network that trans patients have created through the years. It seems like it’s the support from other patients, that is the main reason why people would stick to their ridiculously motionless place on the waiting list, despite seeing how slow it moves (only 33 people make it through the “level 1” each month!).
The performance opens cleverly – by disarming the audience’s walls with some comedy. Trans stories told on stage can easily fall into the depressive, blue tone (completely understandably). Here, even though the NHS process that’s the main goal for everyone to get to, is a painful, and difficult one, we follow more of the “waiting room” stories, that balance the main topic with some tongue-in-cheek humour and puns. And, before you ask, yes, there is a “Harry Potter” joke included (of course!).
The stage sees plenty of movement, just like in a real video game: there are fights, multiple costume changes, and a freestyle “Hung Up” Madonna choreography, that made the whole audience stomp their feet. Because what else can you do, while stuck in an NHS limbo?
Andrew Houghton (who recently performed their queer coming-of-age tale “Naughty”), Carly Halse, and Jay Woods fill the stage with their presence and portray distinctive ways that young people can deal with a traumatic waiting time for the GIC. They have a magnetic energy between them, and that collective energy is what creates the feeling of “multi-player modes” throughout the show, with each of the characters encountering different challenges.
The script includes some minor references to real people who were historical figures in trans history – they are mentioned just by name and by reading a short “message” from them. As a concept, it’s a fascinating element, but I feel like it’s not used to its full advantage. After the show, there was a small exhibition regarding the people and history of trans healthcare, which helped to fill the gaps I missed through the show, which is a nice way to do it, but still – I believe that the show should feel more complete even without this added post-show display.
“Patient is a Verb” is a kind of show that opens the issue of a broken healthcare system to a wider audience – it does it with a concept, finesse, and fun, that would interest even a person that’s completely not aware of the trans healthcare issues (like me). It’s a show that makes you laugh, but shakes your soul a little too, and makes you google the topic once you get home. Can’t wait to see what the Burning Attic collective does next – my expectations bar is set very high from now on!
Patient is a Verb
Camden People’s Theatre, 13-15 December 2022
Andrew Houghton (they/he)
Carly Halse (they/she)
Jay Woods (he/they)
VOICEOVER ARTIST: Fiora Fairchild (she/they)
Alex Sheppard (he/him),
Andy Bodrenkov (they/them),
Florian Lim (they/them), J Frank (he/they),
Julian H (he/him), Lisa Maeda (they/them),
Rae Harm (he/him)
DIRECTOR / PRODUCER / WRITER:
Florian Lim (they/them)
WRITER / DRAMATURGY:
Julian H (he/him)
TECHNICAL & GRAPHIC DESIGNER:
AV Bodrenkov (they/them)
Alex Sheppard (he/him)