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The Human Body

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Human Body, Donmar Warehouse, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport charm in this homage to the early NHS and the film ‘Brief Encounter’

This starry drama from Lucy Kirkwood is a period piece about the foundation of the NHS…  and also a full-on homage to Noël Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’.

The year is 1948, and Iris (Keeley Hawes) is a doctor living in south Shropshire during the final months before the launch of the NHS. She’s also a Labour councillor, who travels to London once a week to serve as a parliamentary aide. Plus, she’s got domestic duties:  times being what they are, she is expected to devote a seemly amount of attention to her daughter Laura and husband Julian (Tom Goodman-Hill) - an injured, embittered former navy doctor who is dubious about the government nationalising his practice.

Genuinely believing in all these causes, Iris rises to them uncomplainingly. But her life is changed by a (what else?) brief encounter on a train, where she meets dashing minor-league Hollywood actor George (Jack Davenport), a local boy made good who has come home to visit his mother. 

Although there is a fair amount of scene-setting for the NHS side of the story, once George shows up it’s difficult to exaggerate the extent to which the first half of ‘The Human Body’ feels like a stage remake of ‘Brief Encounter’. While Iris and George have different biographical details to the film’s Laura and Alec, their love unfolds similarly. Moreover, Michael Longhurst’s production plays explicit homage by using live black and white video to film the couple during their scenes together, their damnably attractive faces blown up on a big screen, radiating poise and glamour. If that wasn’t obvious enough, at one point they even discuss the film ‘Brief Encounter’.

The homage drops off in the second half: the silver screen stuff is Iris’s fantasy of escape, and the play becomes more about the pragmatic reality of a woman in ’40s Britain trying to enact meaningful change on the world. 

Kirkwood is a mercurial playwright: her last three works were a big budget musical (‘The Witches’), a high concept conspiracy thriller (‘Rapture’) and a ragged raw monologue about police violence towards women (‘Maryland’). ‘The Human Body’ is a lot more MOR than all that - though steeped in interesting detail about the Atlee/Bevan years, it’s essentially a fairly conventional period romance that often teeters on melodrama.

What differentiates it from ITV teatime dramas is its theatricality: Fly Davis’s set and all the props – even a tray of canapés at a party – are NHS blue. Goodman-Hill, Pearl Mackie and Siobhán Redmond have a ball playing different characters; and there are of course the ‘Brief Encounter’-isms.

But none of this stuff amounts to a masterstroke. As a stage homage to the film it feels overshadowed by Emma Rice’s landmark adaptation. And of course the film itself is almost incomparable, virtually a part of the British soul. Invoking comparisons is dangerous because you’re doomed to come off second best.

Still, the cast sells it: Hawes is terrific as a woman who has given everything she has in the name of her country, her patients and her family and is shocked to discover that she still somehow has her own needs. And Davenport is terrifically fun as a man so mired in his own cynicism that he’s shocked to discover how moved he is by Iris’s belief in something better. Both actors are playing to type; but they’re the right types. It’s star casting that pays off.

‘The Human Body’ is a heartfelt but old-fashioned drama that gets hung up trying to find an original theatrical language. It dreams of being something more than it is. But what it is, is still pretty damn likeable.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£15-£65. Runs 2hr 45min
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