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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Olivier Theatre     Spring 2024

Britain came out of the Second World War exhausted. Many homes had been destroyed by bombs and there was a shortage of goods to provide for even basic needs.

It might seem the least likely time to increase public spending, but the government chose that moment to create the Welfare State with its key element of a National Health Service (NHS) launched by its Minister of Health Nye Bevan.

In an imaginative sequence with much humour described by the National Theatre as “an epic Welsh fantasia,” the play Nye by Tim Price takes us from his school days to his final hospitalisation for cancer.

The story is framed by that illness, with Michael Sheen giving a riveting believable performance as a charismatic Nye in red-striped pyjamas drugged to control the pain, recalling events from his life.

At school, other kids intervene to prevent a brutal spider-like teacher from severely caning Nye for a stutter. The act of solidarity is an important lesson.

A similar gesture is evident in the way his local community organised medical support via the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, where subscriptions by some of its members entitled everybody to access what they needed. Later in the show, he would tell us that was his inspiration and model for the NHS.

There are brief scenes of Bevan among the mineworkers and his organisational abilities on the local council, but the highlight of his journey is the fight he waged to introduce the NHS against resistance, particularly from doctors.

Their massed gathering is projected onto the back curtains which are part of Vicki Mortimer’s minimal but effective set design that includes beds that double as debating chambers.

We hear that while 4,734 doctors voted in favour of the NHS some 40,814 voted against it.

As he rails against existing inequalities he angrily points out that Sunderland has one doctor for 18,000 patients while Chelsea has one for just 200 patients.

The swift-moving performance directed by Rufus Norris finds lots of ways to make the audience laugh, from the rhetorical flourish of Nye’s speeches to his conversation during the war years with Winston Churchill

In the tea rooms of Parliament in front of astonished MPs he describes Churchill, impressively conjured up by the performance of Tony Jayawardena, as “a wholesaler of disaster”. He also denounces him for conscripting people to work in the mines and then allowing the owners to sell the coal to the state for a profit.

Other characters (examples include his father and sister) remain mere sketches or in the case of his wife the MP Jennie Lee (Sharon Small), she is limited to being an illustration of family support despite her reputation for having a radical influence on him.

The depiction of Clement Atlee (Stephanie Jacob) moving around in his mobile desk like Davros of the Daleks gets a lot of laughter but seems to have no purpose beyond fun.

It’s as if the writer is unsure what to do with the play when he steps away from Bevan, so other characters are one-dimensional.

And by ignoring the social context of a discontented population just emerging from the political fury of the 1930s economic Depression and the sacrifices of the war, we miss the timely historical nature of the social changes he championed and the numerous others who made them possible.

The show is always an entertaining and watchable upbeat glimpse of Bevan and his achievements, but like the NHS today, it could be so much more.

Keith McKenna

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Review of  Nye - National Theatre 2024

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