By Maja Metera
★ ★ ★
The Book of Medicine is a musical written, directed and performed by Cardiff Healthcare Drama Society. It follows two medical students at Cardiff University – Alexandra and Harrison – through their academic and social journey. It is loosely based on The Book of Mormon, the Tony Award winner which is considered one of the funniest musicals of all times. But this production sadly wasn’t much fun to me.
The programme claims that the main point of the plot is whether the main characters’ friendship will “survive the turmoil of medical school”. However, you can barely see it through most of the play – especially during its second half. The focus is put on the Dean’s efforts to expel students from the course and gives little space to scenes in which Alexandra and Harrison act together. Moreover, it was easy to tell where the writers momentarily lost their motivation during the creative process. I daresay they themselves were very aware of it as in the Writers’ Note, they did acknowledge that the audience might notice “the lazy writing”. After the introductory scenes, the action seemed rushed with easy jokes, and attempted to cover too much for a two-hour play. Furthermore, it ends with overly Disney-like conclusion that Good always wins.
Now a few words about the actors and their characters. Alexandra is an achiever – which seems to be demonised through the plot as a representation of the stereotypical medical student that does not know what fun is and has no social life because of their course. She has a difficult – toxic – relationship with her mother who pressures her into working even harder. But is it understood by her best friend and the rest of the students? Absolutely not. Judging by how the character comes across, the message that the audience might get, and that I certainly got, is that a strong female lead cannot be successful without being a mean lonely she-wolf. However, Cari Griffiths, playing this role, has definitely the best voice and vocal skills among the cast. It is a shame she was not given more solo songs.
Harrison, on the other hand, quickly becomes very popular and they go separate ways. Therefore, the script leaves a lot of the middle part of their story untold, with inconsistent writing. This character is based on the basic canvas – as a lot of elements in The Book of Medicine – of a goofy class clown who is not so concentrated on academic goals. Even though he struggles romantically and academically, he still achieves better results and has a more satisfying university experience than Alexandra. The actor’s (Daniel Adams) ability to change and adapt their voice is surely worth mentioning. Additionally, I got the impression that Daniel in real life bears some resemblance with the character of Harrison, which made for great acting.
The characters who really got my attention were the members of the board, with the honourable mention going to Evie Wateridge playing Bravo. She stole every single scene she was in with her stage presence and body confidence. Other than that, I would question some of the lead choices as there was a visible difference in dancing, singing and acting abilities of some of the cast members who were continuously put on the spot in the first dancing row. I felt that, as a result, the performance of most of the songs was negatively impacted.
Even though I found The Book of Medicine at times hyperbolic and cringe-worthy, it was not all bad. At certain times, I was highly impressed with the cast’s skills, especially when it came to dancing, and the interesting concepts used by the directors. My personal favourite is the ballroom scene in which the stage got divided into parts – only one of them at the time was moving while the rest stayed frozen. It was the perfect way to catch the audience’s attention.
I strongly believe in Cardiff Healthcare Drama Society’s potential. The Book of Medicine had its positive sides and included some important messages. I assume that if they put more time into reviewing the script, it would be a very good play. But, regardless of my unfavourable opinion, one question stays unanswered – who had more fun – the actors or the audience? Judging by the positive reactions of the people sitting around me, it’s hard to tell.