Photo: Michael Sheen as Aneurin Bevan.  Credit: Johan Persson.


There’s more decent politics coming from the National Theatre’s Olivier stage than there has been for decades from the institution across the river.  My friend and I wondered if shadow ministers were in the audience – let alone the BTP Government  (beyond the pale).  Nye, written by Tony Price recounts, with theatre making brilliance, the story of the foundation of the National Health Service through a series of morphine induced memories as Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan hallucinates momentous stages of his life while dying of stomach cancer.  Played by Michael Sheen dressed throughout in a chubster suit under his stripy pyjamas, and a cow pat hair do we travel through these vignettes: caning by a brutal school master for his stutter, setting up town councils, getting into Parliament, meeting Jennie Lee – later to become Minister for the Arts.  A brief WW2, the transfer of power from Chamberlain to Churchill – and later Clement Atlee who offered Nye the Ministry for Health and Housing, through to the founding of the National Health Service.  The difficulty in pushing this through the British Medical Association and the doctors is particularly well done – as is the death of his father. There are profound exchanges between him and Churchill (Tony Jayawardena) in the art of politics; compromise, tactics and strategy.  Their conversation in the tearooms, a place Churchill rarely visited, with a beautifully choreographed routine of MPs and their tea-cups.  The death of Nye’s miner father, a man he was reluctant to visit as he was dying, yet  made it to the death bed is very moving (my friend was in tears). Hallucinations of his father taking him down the pit – sharing his knowledge and understanding of coal as if were an animal, when and how to strike at a seam – magical realism with sound and laser beams.   This deep knowledge is carried into Nye’s decisions about how and when to make political strikes.  This is terrific theatre, as the three elements of writing, set and performance are in powerful harmony.  Director Rufus Norris and designer Vicky Mortimer’s sets, all swishing green plastic, balletic hospital beds and a great Mekon style PM Clem Atlee and his mobile desk (brilliantly played by Stephanie Jacob in bald wig).  The big star is Michael Sheen in his jim-jams  (replica pairs can be purchased in the shop).  His is a performance from the heart as well as the head. It was poignant for me, in my mid 70s looking at how, as a working class kid, I took free health care for granted, my parents and grandparents seeing it as a gift. There is no didactic writing here, but passion for social change. Do we need another war to understand this? It may seem odd for a reviewer to mention other reviews, yet the sprinklings of 3 stars out there suggest reviewers (no doubt with a post modern education behind them, and youngish), do not understand the profundity of this play, and how well the passion and intellect of the Welshman Bevan came together in agape – love for humanity.  If I had a pocket of stars I’d give it every one.


National Theatre till 11th May. A performance captured live and broadcast worldwide from Tuesday 23rd April marking the 100th NT live title. Transferring to Wales Millennium Centre 18th May – 1st June.



Jan Woolf







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