Clicky

/

At the National Theatre: Nye

Graham Easton is an academic GP, broadcaster and Honorary Professor of Clinical Communication Skills at QUML Medical School

 

When she heard that my wife and I were going to watch “Nye” at the National Theatre, my mother-in-law, Joyce,* thought it all sounded a bit earnest and gloomy. She had bought us theatre vouchers for Christmas, and I think had hoped we might use them for something more light-hearted. But although there are sombre bits, I found this an inspiring, uplifting play about one of my heroes – the Welsh firebrand MP and father of the NHS, Aneurin “Nye” Bevan – vividly brought to life by another Welsh hero, the actor Michael Sheen. And although I already knew many of the NHS parts of Bevan’s story (I have proudly given lectures to American pre-med students on the birth of the NHS in 1948), Tim Price’s play, directed by Rufus Norris, painted a much fuller portrait of him, illuminating Bevan’s journey from stuttering boy, via coal miner and union leader, to the charismatic orator who nationalised the health service.

But although there are sombre bits, I found this an inspiring, uplifting play about one of my heroes – the Welsh firebrand and father of the NHS, Aneurin “Nye” Bevan…

The play starts in 1960 with Bevan in a hospital bed after surgery for what was thought to be a duodenal ulcer, but turns out to be stomach cancer (his MP wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) decides to keep this from him). His life story then unfolds for us in a series of morphine-induced flashbacks from his deathbed. He never changes out of his baggy red striped pyjamas, and the main characters drift in and out of his dreams, brought to life by the nurses, doctors, patients, and visitors on the ward.

I hadn’t realised that Bevan was so critical of Churchill’s wartime government and was often a stone in the shoe of the Labour party too…

There are some gripping dramatic scenes, for example when he is remembering being bullied by a grotesque schoolteacher with two long walking sticks like some giant mutant insect, and his school chums come to his rescue. Or the euphoric childhood moment in a local library when he realises that he can get round his crippling stammer by choosing synonyms for his trigger words. There are touching guilt-ridden scenes with his father, a miner, dying of “black lung”, and some wonderful fiery speeches in parliament – still in his jim-jams. I hadn’t realised that Bevan was so critical of Churchill’s wartime government and was often a stone in the shoe of the Labour party too, which clearly wound up his boss Clement Attlee (Stephanie Jacob). There’s a dreamy quality throughout which makes it fun: the bed-bound cast breaking into a crazy song-and-dance routine halfway through, Bevan and his best friend at school exchanging dead arms and ridiculous childish insults, and Clement Attlee cruising around the stage whilst sitting behind his motorised desk like Davros, creator of the Daleks.

At times it did feel like watching Bevan’s animated curriculum vitae – a chronologically ordered journey through the highlights of his life. Some significant chunks of the story were fast-forwarded; his role in the 1926 General Strike was glossed over for example, and the Second World War and ensuing Labour landslide are squished into a few minutes. The awkward battles with the BMA were just a small part of the play, albeit cleverly brought to life by images of multitudes of disgruntled doctors projected onto hospital screens. But Sheen really captured the essence of Nye for me. So, Joyce, don’t worry – there were plenty of laughs and light moments. And what could be more stirring than to witness the extraordinary charisma, courage and determination that brought about such a revolution in our health service 75 years ago? A timely reminder of what life was like pre-war, when we didn’t have affordable healthcare for everyone, based on need rather than ability to pay. I was left wondering what Nye would have made of the state of the NHS today.

*Deputy editor’s note: Joyce has given the author permission to feature in this review. ‘Nye’ is on at The National Theatre, London, until 11 May 2024

Featured Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nick Wooding
Nick Wooding
20 days ago

Thank you for this – I am off to see it tonight so looking forward to it even more, and it will be available on National Theatre Live at cinemas.

Previous Story

How to ‘drug’ our way out of the obesity crisis (or not): the roll-out of semaglutide

Next Story

The risks of medical investigation are often overlooked

Latest from Arts

1
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x
Skip to toolbar