EDINBURGH (Reuters) – A desperate mechanic driven to operate on his sick wife is the subject of a disturbing play which looks at the future of Britain’s prized public health service, shown at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“After the Cuts” is the dystopian story of Jim, a retired mechanic, and his wife Agnes who cannot afford medical treatment when she is diagnosed with cancer. Years into the future, healthcare in Britain is no longer free.

The performance coincides with the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) and its “cradle to grave” care. The anniversary has provoked public reflection on its integrity as tight government budgets put pressure on services. 

Cost restraints amid the growing demands of an aging population have compounded anxiety over the consequences of Britain’s exit from the European Union next year, and the potential impact on the supply of medicines and staff.

The subject is close to the public’s heart, director Beth Morton told Reuters at the world’s biggest arts and culture festival in Edinburgh.

“The audiences react so differently (…) some laugh a lot, in serious places too, perhaps because of discomfort. People cry, because they feel the human connection,” she said.

“The message is not to take the NHS for granted.”

Accompanied by dim lighting and a soundtrack that is by turns mournful and menacing, the setting in a small performing space creates a charged atmosphere.

The drama culminates a scene where Jim operates on his wife to a backdrop of metallic, violent sound effects.

Despite the grim topic, the play is also peppered with bittersweet jokes: the couple laugh over the costs of a hospital trip where they are billed for electricity, water and toilet trips and Agnes is continually compared to the broken vacuum cleaner, which Jim haphazardly mends.

A recent poll found the NHS is a principle concern of British voters, with 77 percent of the public backing an increase in public spending on healthcare.

The show will tour Britain in spring 2019.    

(Reporting by Grace van der Wielen; Editing by Elisabeth O’Leary and Ros Russell)