Tim Price
National Theatre with Wales Millenium Centre
National Theatre (Olivier Theatre)

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Michael Sheen as Aneurin Bevan Credit: Johan Persson
Michael Sheen as Aneurin Bevan Credit: Johan Persson
Michael Sheen as Aneurin Bevan Credit: Johan Persson
Sharon Small as Jennie Lee Credit: Johan Persson
Tony Jayawardena as Winston Churchill and Michael Sheen as Aneurin Bevan Credit: Johan Persson
Nye Credit: Johan Persson
Nye Credit: Johan Persson

The series of green traverse curtains like those around a hospital bed close off the Olivier stage, appropriately for what the National calls a “Welsh fantasia” on the life of the architect of the NHS Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. They hide, reveal and even become multiple locations as Tim Price’s play presents episodes from Bevan’s life remembered through morphine induced hallucinations as he lies in a hospital bed.

He is there to be treated for a stomach ulcer, happy to be a patient of the system he set up. The choreography of doctors, nurses and hospital beds around him is as joyful as the NHS regent of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, but Tim Price’s play is more about getting there than celebration.

Coming round from his operation, Nye is told that the operation went well, but his wife, Jennie Lee (Sharon Small), and friend and political agent Arthur Lush (Roger Evans), who are at his bedside, know that the surgeons have discovered an advanced and inoperable cancer: he is dying.

Michael Sheen is on stage throughout as Nye, dressed in pyjamas and with bare feet, thinks himself back in his stuttering childhood in Tredegar in the South Wales coalfield, bullied by a sadistic schoolmaster with his whole class demonstrating solidarity with their fellow pupil, remembers the liberation that he found in a free library. He relives the first time he went down the pit with his miner father, his stand against mine owners and his activity, his guilt at being too busy to be there when his sick father needed him. We seethe and his comrades infiltrate local government, him becoming and MP and his meeting with equally new MP Lee.

This potted personal history is often presented surreally. It goes on to show him as him an outspoken critic of government, a sharp critic of Churchill and his conduct of the War. After the 1945 Labour landslide, Prime Minister Attlee hopes to pacify the left and shut him up by giving him place in the cabinet as Minister for Health and Housing. It may surprise those who so admire the NHS today to realise how many opposed its creation: the doctors to start with, backed by Churchill, even Deputy PM Herbert Morrison was against Bevan’s plans, but he found a way of getting them through. There is material for an entire play there which is sped through too quickly.

“Leave the activist behind, become a politician,” advises Churchill when seeking Bevan’s support so as to present a united UK government to the USA when he needs America to enter the war. Perhaps his handling of the doctors was more pragmatic, but this is a man driven by his egalitarianism.

Michael Sheen presents an extremely likeable Nye: quite rightly, these after all are his own dreams, though not without some self-criticism and he brings a touching poignancy to some personal moments. We get a person, not political speeches, though he is a man driven by his principles. This is Nye we are seeing, not an actor’s charisma, with the characters around broadening the picture, Jennie and Arthur for instance.

Sharon Small and Roger Evans don’t get much chance to develop their characters, they are there in the service of Nye, though Jennie Lee went on to be Arts Minister in Harold Wilson’s government—would that we had her like now. There is multi-roleplaying from most of the cast with brief but striking cameos from Tony Jayawardena as Winston Churchill, Stephanie Jacob as Clement Attlee and Nicholas Khan as Neville Chamberlain. The whole company maintain the rapid flow of Rufus Norris’s production and Steven Hoggett and Jess Williams choreography, with Vicki Mortimer’s simple setting suddenly erupting into spectacle.

Playing for three hours if you include the interval, this is a lively presentation that celebrates and entertains rather than argues a case, but it inevitably reminds us of the problems faced by today’s NHS. Nye Bevan resigned from the cabinet when charges were introduced into a service designed to be free to all. How would he handle today’s situation?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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