• Friday, July 12, 2024


‘Nye’ review: Play tackles complexities of the man who created NHS

Sheen is superb in baggy pyjamas and barefoot throughout Rufus Norris’s two-and half-hour production.

Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan in the play (Photo credit: Johan Persson)

By: Shailesh Solanki

THE NHS, said the former chancellor Nigel Lawson, is the closest thing the English have to a religion. So it follows that its creator would be deified as a God in certain circles.

Nye, playing at the National Theatre until 11th May, tackles the complexities of one of the great figures of the post war era and creator of the NHS, an institution that is sanctified in the nation’s psyche.

We meet Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan (Michael Sheen) at the end of his life, undergoing treatment for stomach cancer in a hospital he created. There are morphine induced flashbacks to Nye’s childhood as he overcomes a stammer and the brutal canings of his headmaster. Nye is transformed from diffident child to agitator at the local Tredegor coal mine and onto to leading the local town council where he secures better conditions and worker rights.

As Nye battles his illness, he is attended to by a Jamaican nurse (Kezrena James) and Indian doctors, a fitting reflection of the contribution of Commonwealth citizens to the creation of the modern NHS.

Sheen is superb in baggy pyjamas and barefoot throughout Rufus Norris’s two-and half-hour production, as the imaginative Olivier stage morphs from a hospital ward to the chamber of the House of Commons, to a coal pit and the Cabinet room.

Nye the great firebrand orator emerges at the House of Commons where he meets his future wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) in the tearoom of the House of Commons, who she describes as a ‘rutting stag.’ Lee was a substantial figure in her own right as one of only five female MPs at the time and one cannot help but feel more consideration should have been given to this rich character.

INSET 2 Tony Jayawardena Winston Churchill Michael Sheen Nye Bevan in Nye at the National Theatre c Johan Persson 15153
Jayawardena as Churchill

There are clear insights into the power couple as the play shifts from Nye’s past to the hospital bed. Both Nye and Lee hailed from a working class background and their marriage was not a traditional one – neither were conventional in the normal sense and both had multiple affairs.

But she remained his closest confidante, hosting dinner parties and having ‘champagne with Nehru and oysters with Khrushchev’, such was their rise in country’s hierarchy. Lee regarded Nye as the ‘man who is the best chance for socialism in the country’.

Tim Price’s script really comes to life as Nye’s parliamentary career takes off. There are fiery debates with Churchill, powerfully played by Tony Jayawardena, as Nye becomes his biggest detractor during the Second World War. Nye is ostracised by his own party and becomes ‘the most hated man in Britain after Hitler’.

But the post war election sweeps the Labour Party to power and the canny Clement Atlee (Stephanie Jacob), swivelling across the stage behind a mobile prime ministerial desk, appoints Nye Minister for Health and Housing.

The surprise appointment baffles Nye but he relishes the opportunity and despite resistance from Atlee’s deputy Herbert Morrison and strong opposition from the doctor’s union, Nye the great visionary, brings the NHS into existence on 5th July 1948 to give ordinary people, he says, the care and dignity they deserved.

As Nye succumbs to cancer, he’s back to his childhood, holding his father’s hand and poignantly asks ‘did I look after everyone?’

Nye’ is at the National Theatre from 24 February – 11 May 2024. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

The running time 2 hours 40 minutes with an interval.

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