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Nye review: Michael Sheen stars in a surreal take on the NHS origin story

The man who helped create our National Health Service is found lying sickly in a hospital bed in the National Theatre’s new play about the Labour politician’s life – despite a baggy script, the real life parallels deliver an emotional punch

Alice Saville
Thursday 07 March 2024 12:41 GMT
Michael Sheen as Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan in ‘Nye’ at the National Theatre
Michael Sheen as Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan in ‘Nye’ at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)

It would have been so easy to make Nye a straightforward hero story: Michael Sheen resplendent in the title role of the underdog son of a miner smashing political elitism to found the NHS. Instead, Sheen spends this intriguing, dream-like play shuffling about a hospital barefoot in baggy pyjamas, haunted by flashbacks to the morphine highs of his career.

Writer Tim Price and outgoing National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris have turned this welfare state origin story into a weird, sometimes baggy reverie, enlivened with poignant biographical insights. At first, Sheen is touchingly delighted to be treated by the public health system he helped dream into existence, a vision as beautiful as the sunny-hued daffodils on each bedside table. But the mood soon darkens as he’s lost in post-operative hallucinations: the sadistic schoolteacher who beat him for his stammer, the black lung-afflicted miner father who – ironically – he couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

It’s a bit of a tired theatrical set-up, to have an ageing famous figure reliving his life in convenient vignettes. But although the text periodically sags, Norris’s direction keeps things nimble and strange. Nye’s first trip to the library is a thing of wonder, with Beauty and the Beast-style living bookshelves beckoning him into a world of learning. The town council meeting where he makes his first, revolutionary France-inspired political manoeuvres unfolds on tables made of hospital beds, patients still in them.

Sheen and the cast of ‘Nye' (Johan Persson)

Accordingly, Sheen plays Nye with a touchingly boy-like sense of gentleness and wonder: but sometimes this performance is at odds with what we’re told about this obstreperous, stubborn, womanising political operator. It’s hard to believe that his wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) would surrender her own political career to him, or that post-war PM Clement Atlee (a sinuous Stephanie Jacob) would see him as such a dangerous rival that the only way to neutralise him was to give him the minister for health and housing.

The actual founding of the NHS feels like a rushed misstep here, too. Nye’s showdowns with the doctors are staged a bit like he’s confronting an intergalactic alien council, their looming masked faces dehumanising the actual people who make the NHS possible. The coda is hurried, too, with an underexamined, unfair-feeling scene that suggests Jennie Lee was to blame for the political failures of Bevan’s later years.

Norris and Price are clearly reluctant to end on a note that feels too heartwarming, too rousing. This is the polar opposite of the NHS section in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, all happy kids bouncing on hospital beds in pyjamas. But sometimes, it’s hard not to wish for a bit more of that optimism – for an insight into the post-war mindset shift that turned socialism from a quaint minority interest into an urgent, collective political mission. Instead, Nye‘s emotional punch comes from its hushed parallels with the present day, where the NHS – like its founder – lies sick in bed, battling for its life.

National Theatre, until 11 May

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