Care review – Sheridan Smith excels in delicately observed drama

Jimmy McGovern’s story of a single mother forced to become her own mum’s carer will chime with many. And Smith’s performance is her best yet

When Jenny (Sheridan Smith) leaves the hospital to which her mother Mary (Alison Steadman) has been taken after a car crash brought on by a stroke at the wheel, she finds she has driven there without any money to pay the parking. Can the man in the booth just let her out, please? He cannot. So she has to leave her car, get an expensive taxi home, pick up the kids and get the car the next day. And so begins the unravelling of life when catastrophe hits and nobody, really, cares.

Care was written by Jimmy McGovern and Gillian Juckes. The story of a single mother, Jenny, trying to look after her mum – after she has a stroke and develops dementia, and the health authority refuses to take responsibility when she is discharged after three weeks in hospital – is loosely based on Juckes’ real-life experiences.

The disorientation and bafflement of Jenny and her sister as they negotiate the aftermath of Mary’s “event” is – like the rest of Care – beautifully, delicately observed. Nothing in the 90-minute drama is wildly dramatic. It chooses instead to replicate that awful, gradual, but remorseless immersion in a new reality that all those visited by tragedy and grief will recognise.

At the supposed progress meeting at the hospital, Jenny and her sister, Claire, can’t believe that they are planning on sending her home. “She’s making no sense,” says Claire (Mary’s indecipherable speech is translated on screen in faint, floating subtitles). “She’s eating metal, and she thinks anything that moves is her dead husband!” But medical treatment can do no more for her, there are no places in local rehabilitation centres – who wouldn’t take her anyway, as she is ambulant – and the hospital needs her bed. If she passes the “kitchen test” – boiling a kettle and making a cup of tea on her own – she will be discharged. And so, in a horrible inversion of normality again that all those who have been there will flinch from in remembered pain, her daughters sit watching their mother with the tester and hoping that she can no longer make herself tea.

Mary eats the teabag. She gets a place in a care home. The underfunded, understaffed care home loses her on the first night and she is found wandering the streets and brought to Jenny’s by the police.

The die is cast. Jenny takes her in and becomes her carer, the government allowance not making up for the wage she had when able to work. Her shiftless ex-husband is no help, financially or otherwise, and nor – slightly less explicably or believably – is her sister, who is underdeveloped and inconsistent as a character. She forms (despite a first-class performance from Sinead Keenan) the only loose nut in an otherwise immaculately constructed vehicle for McGovern’s latest social concern.

Eventually, Jenny discovers by chance – it would be very expensive for the NHS if this information were more readily available – that Mary is entitled to something called a continuing healthcare package and, after an arduous application and appeal (which reveals a forged questionnaire designed to keep her off the books), Mary is approved for it.

It may be Smith’s finest work yet. She has just one overtly emotional scene as Jenny (when Claire says she can’t take Mary back after her second stroke and Jenny shoots back that this is to stop Claire feeling guilty as she sees her sister doing all the work rather than out of concern for their mother). The rest of the time, she must somehow show us simply the unrelenting, unshowy, endlessly wearying grind of it all, the lack of time or energy to spare reacting to the heaping humiliations ill health brings to the sufferer and all around her, and the corrosive, compounding effects of grief on top of it all. And show us she does. It’s a subtle, humane performance, and I hope it doesn’t get overlooked by awards panels in favour of more eye-catching roles elsewhere. Steadman, too, bringing all her talent and experience to bear on avoiding the multiple traps an actor faced with such a part can fall into, is excellent, but it is unquestionably Smith who draws the viewer in and anchors the whole.

Care has a Happy Valleyish recognition and appreciation of how women’s lives so often work out; of how age brings with it more, not fewer, responsibilities. There’s a narrowing, not broadening, of opportunities and their enforced ability to plough on in the absence of any alternative. It is a spare, tight, moving piece of drama that should force us all to care – about who will look after us in our old age, who will look after them and who will fund it all. We’re none of us getting any younger, you know.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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