'Nye' review – Michael Sheen leads a passionate paean to the father of the NHS

Read our review of Nye, directed by Rufus Norris, now in performances at the National Theatre to 11 May.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

How much do you know about the creator of the NHS? Going into this new play by Tim Price, I confess I only had a hazy idea of Aneurin “Nye” Bevan: that he was a Welsh Labour politician, a socialist firebrand, and that we had him to thank for that golden (if increasingly contested) idea of free universal healthcare.

Price’s titanic, thoroughly researched effort – a co-production between the National Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre – does a noble job of conveying Bevan’s fascinating story, although ultimately there’s simply too much ground to cover in one show. Like the NHS itself, it’s a grand project but an unwieldy one.

We begin at the end, in 1960, with a terminally ill Bevan lying in a hospital bed. His morphine-induced fever dreams provide helpful flashbacks to key moments – such as when his entire class stood up to his bullying schoolteacher, in an early instance of collective action, or receiving wisdom from his father down in a Welsh mine, and later seeing his beloved parent dying, horrifically and far too early, of black lung.

Bevan’s career gradually develops, from working as a miners’ agent to his election as MP for Ebbw Vale, and finally becoming the Minister for Health and Housing, alongside his personal life, via a sparky meet-cute with fellow politician and future wife Jennie Lee.

Although wearing striped pyjamas throughout, Michael Sheen shapeshifts impressively. He’s particularly heartrending as a vulnerable young boy, stymied by his stammer. One lovely scene sees his friend Archie Lush introducing him to the magic of the library: all these books, available for free, and the more words he learns, the easier it becomes to avoid those linguistic “roadblocks”.

However, as we zip through the years, we lose track of his inner life. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Sheen suddenly breaking into a jazz-hands rendition of “Get Happy”, but that time might have been better spent explaining exactly why he spends the war vociferously challenging Winston Churchill, or giving more nuance to his battle with the doctors’ union over the introduction of the NHS.

There’s an interesting parallel journey for his wife, who sacrifices her own career for “domestic servitude” because she believes that Bevan is the best hope for socialism. Sharon Small gives us a glimpse of that conflict, but she’s swamped by exposition – like telling us about their (unseen) unconventional marriage and traumatic miscarriage. What a shame that she’s sidelined in drama, as she was in life.

Rufus Norris’s inventive production bounces between past and present, making great use of Vicki Mortimer’s design with its layers of giant green hospital curtains – which whoosh open to reveal new locations, or, in a particularly enjoyable transition, shoot down to the stage to form the House of Commons benches.

The large ensemble is well utilised by choreographers Steven Hoggett and Jess Williams, whether animating various objects or forming the mass of desperate people who Bevan must save. Donato Wharton’s powerful soundscape features the gasping breaths of Bevan’s father; conversely, Norris includes witty touches like Clement Atlee whizzing around in a desk on wheels – a sort of political bumper car.

Ultimately, though, this creative production can’t disguise the verbosity and breathless sprint to the finish that is Price’s overstuffed, surface-level script, even if elements of it are searingly relevant – like a ludicrous Tory budget delivered by men brought up in a cocoon of privilege, or a grossly unfair hospital postcode lottery. Sketchy characterisation means we hear the arguments but don’t necessarily feel them.

However, this labour of love is certainly well-intentioned and passionately led by Sheen – and Nye’s story deserves to echo through the ages.

Nye is at the National Theatre through 11 May.

Photo credit: Nye (Photo by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

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