'The Human Body' review – Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport are a magnetic pair in this ambitious NHS drama

Read our review of Lucy Kirkwood's new play The Human Body, now in performances at the Donmar Warehouse to 13 April.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The founding of the NHS is in the theatrical spotlight at the moment: you could pair Lucy Kirkwood’s new Donmar Warehouse play, The Human Body, with Nye, starring Michael Sheen, at the National. Although I think I’m safe in saying only one of this duo also features an extended riff on Brief Encounter.

Kirkwood’s formally playful but morally earnest work is set in 1948 Shropshire, where the multi-tasking Iris Elcock – GP, Labour councillor with MP ambitions, and wife and mother – resides with her husband and fellow doctor Julian. Iris is working flat out with minister Helen to get the National Health Service Act over the finish line, but she discovers that Julian is one of the many medical professionals voicing strident opposition.

It’s not the only challenge to their broken marriage. Julian, who was injured while serving in the navy, refuses to get treatment and nastily blames their dwindling sex life on Iris. But an affair with dashing Hollywood film star George Blythe proves to Iris that she is very much desirable – and leads to a fraught decision about what she really wants in life.

Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee’s busy production evokes 1940s filmmaking, from Pathé newsreels to the “woman’s film”, in its creative framing. Stage crew bustle around the cast with handheld cameras and the action is projected onto the large screen backing Fly Davis’s set, with sweeping music accompanying the budding romance.

That swooning desire is in stark contrast with this gloomy post-war era, summoned by grey costumes and talk of endless rationing. It amplifies Iris’s choice between the escapism that George (and his profession) offers, and her mission to make real life better for everyone via an equal society, not just a lucky few.

However, the production overall feels cluttered and over-conceptualised, and the whizzing revolve, in particular, is a menace. It actually made me feel queasy, and it gets in the way of the beautifully crafted connection between Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport – both returning to the stage after a long absence, and both superb here. We don’t need screen close-ups; their physical longing is palpable, and much more powerful.

Hawes is absolutely convincing as the admirable but uptight striver Iris (Helen, memorably, labels her “clenched”), with clipped Celia Johnson speech, whose careful plans are upended by bodily desire. “I was perfectly happy being miserable,” she snaps at George, in one of Kirkwood’s numerous scalpel-sharp retorts.

Davenport is a delight as the kind of chap who plays “rotters, cads and bounders”, and who relishes teasing Iris with his louche amorality. But, inevitably, there’s substance beneath the charm, and Davenport smoothly shifts gear as their story moves into darker territory.

Tom Goodman-Hill, Pearl Mackie and Siobhán Redmond do phenomenal multi-roling work. Goodman-Hill is especially strong as the difficult but suffering Julian, Mackie switches between a desperate patient, a brusque divorcée and a sympathetic Windrush nurse, and Redmond makes Julian’s sister a real horror, whether calling working-class people “bovine” or threatening to stab anyone who causes him pain.

However, there is necessarily a sketchiness to these numerous characters, as the central romance competes for time with a wide-ranging (and occasionally prophetic) examination of the health service – from practitioners and patients to politicians – as well as a changing Britain, the already-fetishised Blitz spirit, and the fraught progress of gender equality, plus added metaphors for change: a problematic ancient cherry tree, Chanel’s New Look.

It’s ambitious, intelligent and frequently funny work, but really feels like several plays in one – as well as part of a film. But it’s worth catching for the magnetic pair of Hawes and Davenport, and for the thoughtful reflections on whether the NHS is failing, or whether we’ve failed the great idea of the NHS.

The Human Body is at the Donmar Warehouse to 13 April.

Photo credit: The Human Body (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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