Michael Sheen in Nye – review

Michael Sheen’s titanic tribute to founder of NHS

A scene from Nye at the National Theatre London in which actor Michael Sheen is lying on a hospital bed with actors Roger Evans and Sharon Small standing either side of him
Roger Evans, Michael Sheen and Sharon Small in Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

A man is dying in a hospital bed. He is flanked by his wife and his oldest friend. Heavily sedated with pain killing morphine, his brain takes him back to significant episodes in his life. And what a life. Because this Aneurin Bevan known as Nye who spearheaded the foundation of the National Health Service.

In the course of the evening, while we do learn something about how the service came into being, much more to the point we discover why it was so important to this man and what made him into one of the Labour Party’s most powerful figures.
Playwright Tim Price’s concept is superb. For the entire play, Nye is on stage in his pyjamas and often in his hospital bed. This may remind you of Dennis Potter’s TV drama The Singing Detective, and there is even a sequence in which Nye sings Get Happy to the backing of a brass band. Whatever the inspiration, it’s a highly effective device.
It may be fair to say that, because of the constant presence of Nye, the production would not succeed without an actor of exceptional brilliance in the role. Fortunately, in Michael Sheen, it has one. He never overplays the part, tempting as it must be when portraying one of the twentieth century’s great orators. Nye himself may have had a huge ego, he may have been disloyal, and these characteristics are hinted at, but what we are given by Michael Sheen is a man scared by his present condition and wondering desperately whether his life has been worthwhile. It is a magnetic and moving performance.
A scene from Nye at the National Theatre in London in which Michael Sheen in pyjamas with a book in his hand is being held up by other cast members
Michael Sheen and the cast of Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

Vicki Mortimer’s clever set uses green hospital-style curtains to open to reveal a whole ward of beds, and close to provide the intimacy of a single room. The beds and curtains also move around to create a schoolroom, the House of Commons, a library, the local council chamber and a parliamentary tea room. A low ceiling from which hang the lights emphasises depth and human scale. The lighting designed by Paule Constable enhances each scene: flat fluorescent for the ward, green laser for the coal face, and so on.

So, we encounter Nye bullied by a teacher because his stammer, and receiving solidarity from his friends including his lifelong friend Archie Lush, given a solid portrayal by Roger Evans, and it’s he who helps him overcome his stammer by introducing him to the miners’ free library where he learns alternatives that avoid the traps of words beginning with ‘s’. And of course, it’s his wide vocabulary that helps him become one of the great orators of his time.
We see how he organises the mine workers in his home town Tredegar. How he was a lone and unpopular voice opposing that other great orator WinstonChurchill during World War Two. Tony Jayawardena giving a very amusing version of the wartime leader as a charming persuader, symbolically dancing light on his feet.
In the post-War Labour government, Nye becomes Health Minister and forces through the National Health Service against considerable opposition both from within his own party (a egocentric patronising Herbert Morrisson is played by Jon Furlong) and from the doctors. He sues tactics learned from his youth, his brief time in the mines and his time in local politics, as well his power of persuasion. Although in the end the doctors are brought round by throwing a lot of money at them. The use of a stark black-and-white video created by Jon Driscoll is hugely effective. First it shows the myriad challenges facing the new universal health service and overwhelming Nye, especially when people step out of the screen to tell their personal story. Then it shows the faces of the doctors harsh, greedy and recalcitrant.
On a personal front, we learn how his poetry-loving mineworker father who died from coal dust in the lungs influenced him. And how he met and wooed his wife and fellow MP Jenny Lee. Sharon Small is wonderful as the far left feminist, sharp of mind and tongue.

A worthy swansong for Rufus Norris

There are elements of a history lesson, but ultimately this is the story of a man and his mission. It is told with humour and compassion. Director Rufus Norris, in his last production as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, uses the stage to the full, creating a feel that is both epic and intimate. There are complex scenes choreographed by Steven Hogget and Jess Williams, there are small moments of passion and poignancy.
Now, you can say, as some critics have, that the other characters have little depth, and that may be true but this is a play about Nye Bevan. You may even say that it is not a full picture of him or the full story of the formation of the NHS. That may also be true, but why expect it to be something that it doesn’t claim to be? What we are given are the episodes that stand out in a life as remembered by a dying man.
When death finally arrives, he asks plaintively: ‘Did I look after everyone?’ It is a moment that brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, and I was not alone. Tears for the loss of someone who we have come to care about, and maybe also for a health service that was started with such high ideals.
Nye is at the National Theatre until 11 May, after which it will transfer to Wales Millennium Centre from 18 May to 1 June. There will also be a National Theatre Live broadcast in cinemas from 23 April.
Coincidentally on the same day as I saw Nye, I also watched The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse in which Keeley Hawes as a local GP and Labour politician is involved in ushering in the NHS at local level while having a Brief Encounter-ish affair with a film star played by Jack Davenport. If you’d like to know what I thought of it, click here.