Vaccinator Sally Tonge collected funny stories during the pandemic from her booth - now the subject of an hilarious new play by Chris Eldon Lee, writes Oscar Rink.
This Autumn, Love Lee Productions present Jabs, a play inspired by the experiences of Sally Tonge, who became an (unregistered) NHS vaccinator over the pandemic when her work as a singer and comedian dried up.
It’s a litany of stories from the vaccination booth – but also a love letter to the NHS - spun into comedy gold by her Three Men In A Bowtie comedy colleague Chris Eldon Lee.
Sally, a well-known Shropshire storyteller, said her vaccination booth, with its uniforms, script and choreographed ‘flow’ of people, reminded her so much of a theatre, she had more than enough material for Jabs, by the time she’d finished!
“Each patient was like someone that you improvised with, within the script, to make their moment matter to each of them,” she said.
“The characters I met made me laugh and shed tears by turn. I have been a professional storyteller for over a quarter of a century and your story muscle just doesn't stop twitching because a global pandemic strikes. Everyone has a story to tell and they deserve to be listened to.”
Sally plays herself, whilst actors Christina Cubbin and Paul Wilkinson portray an assortment of 16 characters who appear in her pod for a few minutes each.
Her insider’s view gave her ‘huge regard’ for the NHS ‘mega machine’: “At the needle tip, the individual mattered - and no matter how big the queue was, time would be taken to get it right for everyone. I met nursing staff who cared so deeply and were so committed – some even coming out of retirement to be of service! It was inspiring to be in that energy. People are good. They care and they shine! It was fabulous to be part of it all.”
Sally is sure people will find plenty to relate to in the show: “I hope people tell their own stories to each other and their families and realise that we have all lived through history. It's been tough; it's been beyond difficult for some and yet we have managed to also find humour in the situation.
“I hope it will warm hearts as people find themselves sat in a theatre, recognising a slice of their story being related on stage and being together after too long. Of course, investing a few quid in a theatre ticket to inject energy back into a profession which has suffered so deeply in these times will also be a good thing!”
It was down to playwright Chris Eldon Lee to bring Sally’s stories to the page: “She would text me each night with the crazy stories and moving moments she’d come across,” he said. “They were so special I just had to text back to suggest she write a play about it all. That’s when she twisted my arm.”
Former BBC Radio 4 producer Chris is a master of bringing social history to the stage with writing credits including Atlantic Ladies, Shrewsbury’s Finest Hour and Silhouette. He conceived the play as ‘pub-style theatre’ performed in a 6m x 3m space complete with hospital screens – the vaccination pod!
The overarching narrative tracks Sally’s journey from entertainer to a vaccinator (a ‘vertical learning curve’, as Chris puts it), whilst integrating individual stories, such as that of the elderly Welsh couple who hadn’t left their farm for a year, before their vaccine call-up.
“Sal is a storyteller of some repute, so I simply sat her down over several sessions in cafes and gardens with a battered old cassette machine and recorded them,” he says. “The core of the play is real stories concertinaed together, but we of course had to be scrupulously careful to fictionalise everything. However, the jokes are genuine, and each silly situation we portray on stage really happened”.
“We concentrate on comedy but there are poignant moments in the play because there were poignant moments in the vaccination bay. Covid is a tragedy. That can’t be avoided. But the wartime spirit of ‘Keep calm and carry on jabbing’ shines through.”
The play is firmly pro-vaccination (as you might expect, originating in the vaccination booth) and the pair readily poke fun at what Chris terms ‘anti-vaxxing myths’.
“We weren’t intending to make a political point though politics do creep in,” Chris says. “Dominic Cummings is simply too ridiculous to ignore, and Boris gets a mention as well. Personally, I am deeply impressed with the vaccine roll out. But some of the chaos surrounding it is pure Fawlty Towers.”
Jabs will preview at Snailbeach Village Hall on September 25 & 26. Tickets £8 from (01743) 791327 – followed by Theatre Severn on September 28 & 29, 8pm. Tickets from www.theatresevern.co.uk
Thereafter: Ludlow Brewery on October 7 and Wem Town Hall on October 12, 8pm (01939) 232 299, with future shows at Cross Houses Village Hall and Sparc at Bishops Castle.
- Keep an eye on the Love Lee Productions Facebook page at Love Lee Productions