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  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Nye, National Theatre, 2024
Photo: Johan Persson

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Michael Sheen is tremendous as NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, even if the play’s fear of bio-drama cliches gets a bit much

‘Nye’ will stream in cinemas as part of NT Live from April 23.

The British, in case you hadn’t noticed, tend to get a little sentimental about the NHS. 

So it’s understandable that playwright Tim Price and director Rufus Norris are wary of dewy-eyed hagiography when approaching ‘Nye’, a new biographical drama about Aneurin Bevan, the firebrand Labour health minister who founded the service. With the title role played by the great Michael Sheen, there is a danger of going OTT in having the nation’s favourite current Welshman star as the nation’s favourite historical Welshman. And so Norris’s production has a determinedly trippy quality intended to counter the cliches.

Billed as an ‘epic Welsh fantasia’, ‘Nye’ is largely presented as the stream-of-consciousness of an older Bevan, who is a patient in one of his own hospitals. There for an ulcer operation, he drifts in and out of the present and into recollections of his past, unaware he is dying of stomach cancer – something his MP wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) has determinedly kept from him.

Crowned by a truly uncanny wig, Sheen is a delight as the fiery but unassuming Bevan. He never at any point changes out of his red striped pyjamas, a pleasingly absurdist touch at the heart of Norris’s stylish production, in which the green hospital ward repeatedly dissolves into the past to the sound of wheezing lungs. 

It’s otherworldly in places, especially the scene where Tony Jayawardena’s overbearing Churchill collars Bevan in the Commons and groups of teacup-clutching MPs try to eavesdrop, moving like insectoid predators under Stephen Hoggett and Jess WIlliams’s unsettling choreography.

Really, though, once you get past all the cool stuff, you’re left with a fairly conventional drama, jumbled up. Bevan’s memories of the past come at us in roughly chronological order. There’s a definite artistic licence at work as we see schoolboy Nye - still played by Sheen - overcome a bullying teacher and absorb his local library, hungry to find synonyms for words that trigger his stammer, setting himself on the path to becoming a great orator. But the meat of ‘Nye’ does lie with relatively factual accounts of incidents from Bevan’s life - his scenes in Parliament are particularly riveting, as he is doggedly determined to criticise Churchill’s wartime government, to the chagrin of his boss Clement Atlee (Stephanie Jacob).

I understand the logic in, say, not having Sheen simply parrot Bevan’s big speeches to rabble-rousing effect. But all the hopping around leaves ‘Nye’ somewhat lacking in connective material. It’s never especially clear, for instance, why Bevan is so much more radical and uncompromising than his Labour colleagues. It sometimes feels like we’re seeing his life on shuffle, when a straight playthrough might have said all the same things, but more clearly.

Don’t get me wrong, if it had been a balls-trippingly weird avant-garde odyssey I’d have doubtless been all over it. There’s a big mid-show song and dance number that hints at a much weirder production. Unfortunately, this production never emerges. It feels like ‘Nye’ desperately wants to avoid looking like an Inspirational Drama About The Founder Of Our NHS, but doesn’t have a clear formal plan beyond that.

However, if the whole isn’t quite there, most of the individual scenes are scintillating. And there’s no sense of embarrassment from Sheen, who is magnetic as Bevan - a decent, even slightly bewildered man, who nonetheless feels pathologically drawn to doing the right thing, no matter the odds.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£20-£99. Runs 2hr 40min
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