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Review: Nye (Olivier Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

National treasure Michael Sheen has been recruited to play national hero Nye Bevan, founder of the National Health Service in a world premiere play about his life, so it feels fitting that the home for this debut would be National Theatre. Boasting big names with a proven track record attached, would Nye be another hit for all involved, or is this one story that was better left for the history books?



The premise of Nye sees Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan facing his death in a hospital bed. Confronted by his legacy, his life flashes before his eyes as he relives the moments that led him to mine underground, enter Parliament, fight Prime Ministers, and, ultimately, founding the NHS. As we race through various points in Nye’s life in a mix of linear and non-linear storytelling, events get confused and merge together, drawing parallels and attempting to hammer home the reasoning for Nye’s battle for change in his lifetime and the legacy he has left in the decades since his passing.

 

Tim Price’s writing takes us through the key points in Nye’s life with the narrative idea of Nye looking back at the end of his life a clever idea, and one that feels fitting given his history with Health. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t always land, feeling underdeveloped at times and inconsistent throughout. Act one as a whole feels disjointed with several moments never quite landing. However, Act Two is a lot more cohesive in its nature, leading to some powerful sequences and an ending that carries with it some emotional weight, even if it doesn’t quite have the expected impact. While Price’s writing impresses throughout, a little bit more fine-tuning could have elevated this play much further.



Rufus Norris’ direction is far more consistent throughout with some masterful touches, bringing Price’s writing and Nye’s story to life. Vicki Mortimer’s hospital curtain set design lends itself to some clever reveals and versatile settings which Norris relishes in, using every opportunity to create stage magic. A particularly inspired use of the beds being adapted into other settings was a joyful touch, with choreography from Steven Hoggett and Jess Williams ensuring the stage is always bursting with life. The inclusion of a musical number in Act One is a strange choice and one that I’m not sure works to its desired effect. While it adds to the haze and fantasy of the sequences, it does feel slightly off tonally, particularly as it is so markedly different from anything else in the play.

 

Paule Constable’s lighting design wows throughout, especially in the second act with an inspired use of lasers to stunning effect. Jon Driscoll’s projection leads to one of the strongest moments in the show in Act Two as projections turn into reality, while an ever-present and ominous sound design from Donato Wharton ensures Nye is continually atmospheric.



The big draw of Nye is acclaimed actor Michael Sheen in the lead role of Nye Bevan. While the material isn’t sometimes up to his standard as an actor, he makes the most of it, oozing charisma in a complex and layered performance, exposing the varying strands of Nye’s character. While the writing sometimes doesn’t give as much exposition as you might have hoped, the earlier moments in Nye’s life gave Sheen plenty to work with, which he performed with sensitivity and flair. Through playing him at all stages of his life, Sheen’s versatility as an actor always shone.

 

Sharon Small gives a captivating performance as Nye’s wife, Jennie Lee – again, often feeling like more exposition could have been done in her own story, her choices in the role always delighted, especially in fragmented scenes with Roger Evans as Archie Lush. Stephanie Jacob has a star turn as Clement Attlee, forming an unexpected but memorable double act with her desk with Kezrena James underused but still a highlight in her dual roles as Nurse Ellie and Nye’s sister Arianwen. A standout performance of the show belonged to Tony Jayawardena in his turn as Winston Churchill. Taking on such a legendary character is no easy feat, particularly when he is a key antagonist in this play, but Jayawardena does this with ease, giving a balanced performance that blends more comedic moments with a more sinister tone in a mesmerising turn.

 


Though it is set predominantly in the 1940s, Nye still carries a lot of weight and importance in today’s society. No matter where you lean politically, it is hard not to draw comparisons and sympathise with the current situation as a Conservative government show disinterest to those who aren’t in the 1% of the country’s wealth. While this is clearly highlighted in one moment, perhaps it could have landed with more of an impact had it managed to subtly hint at this more. Though it is unfair to compare to other shows, I can’t gloss over the fact this is one of two shows featuring Nye Bevan and the birth of the NHS currently playing in London. While Nye is a very different beast of the show, in certain respects, it could have taken a leaf out of The Human Body at Donmar Warehouse’s book to help lift this show even more substantially.

 

In some respects, Nye is two very different shows. With act one focusing on what made Nye Bevan tick as a person and act two on his quest to form the NHS, the issue is the consistency of the writing is markedly different throughout. Act Two is powerful and a lot stronger when looked at as a single show, while Act One never quite managed that. Excellent direction and a fantastically strong performance from Michael Sheen alongside an equally impressive cast ensure there is still much to love about Nye - it is just frustrating it never quite meets its potential as a whole. Still a fantastic tribute to one of the most influential politicians in UK history and a glorious tribute to the essential NHS as well, you will leave the theatre feeling moved, though you may recover from that feeling quicker than you ought to.



Nye plays at the National Theatre until 11th May and at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff from 18th May – 1st June. Tickets from nationaltheatre.org.uk. 

 

Photos by Johan Persson

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