REVIEW: Nye, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews Tim Price’s new play Nye now playing at the National Theatre, London.

Michael Sheen. Photo: Johan Persson

National Theatre.
6 March 2023
4 Stars
National Theatre Website

A man lies dying in a hospital he built, his life presented in a morphine induced fever dream. That man saved all our lives, a rare politician who affects the lives and deaths of all of us, for he is Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, creator of the NHS. Tim Price’s new play is not perfect, but, my word, it is passionate, burning with excitement, joy, despair and fury, with a firebrand style that perfectly suits its subject matter. It taps into a key feature of Nye’s personality, his audacity, and the fever dream approach works very well, not sacrificing the naturalism of his story, but allowing superb choreography, by Steven Hoggett and Jes Williams, to animate his story, which, even if it had been performed as a more straightforward play, is an incredible tale of success against the odds. It allows, for example, the Chapel element of life in the Welsh towns, to be distilled into a wonderful song and dance number to Get Happy. (Shades of The Singing Detective here.)

Photo: Johan Persson

It’s performed by a terrific ensemble, and centre to it is a powerful performance by Michael Sheen, big and bold enough to fill the massive Olivier stage and auditorium, but with enough nuance to convey the journey of a child battling to beat his speech impediment, one who discovers the excitement of reading in his free local library, to a man frightened at his impending death. Arrogant and labelled a trouble maker, Sheen connects Nye to his environment, his people and his background, and with the collective Medical Aid Society as his inspiration,  he aims to “Tredegarize” the nation, to build on the successful medical care of his home town. I found it passionate, moving and informative. The play also gives voice to his wife Jennie Lee, a beloved Minister for Culture, her loyalty beautifully portrayed by Sharon Small. It’s a crying shame we see less of her in the second act, but, as she said herself, she is a supporting character to the greatest socialist in town. His friendship with beat pal Archie, (excellent Roger Evans), is wonderfully captured, loyalty being at the heart of Nye’s character, and the fever dream aspect enhances his relationship with his father, who dies in agony of pneumoconiosis, (Black Lung, a distinct Miner’s disease), and here is dressed as a miner while Nye holds him. The metaphor of his father leading him to a seam underground, that glows and leads Nye out of the darkness is overplayed, and the opening scenes in Act Two are overlong. Far more interesting is his puncturing of the war hero image of Winston Churchill, (Tony Jayawarde), making Nye the “second most hated man in Britian, after Hitler”, and Churchill’s 21 votes against the creation of the NHS underlines that pettiness in nothing new in politics. Atlee is given a wonderful desk that moves like a tank, literally manoeuvring Nye into place, although Stephanie Jacob’s bald cap did bring to my mind Davros from Doctor Who.

Photo: Johan Persson

Rufus Norris’s production is playful and pacey, synergizing perfectly with Paulie Constable’s incredible lighting, the set making intimate the Olivier performance area. Some would say that the play speaks to the converted, that we are all in the same choir, and it’s true that the script is sometimes a little didactic, a lot of exposition needs to be told. And the creation of the NHS itself feels a little rushed, his arguments with doctors occurring in projection, much like a film montage. But it’s bold and brave, much like the man itself, and I wasn’t the only one leaving the Olivier with a tear in my eye.

A co-production with the Wales Millenium Centre, I suspect it will raise the roof there, (18th May-1st June), and will be the 100th NT Live screening from 23rd April.

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