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Review: The Human Body (Donmar Warehouse)

Review by Daz Gale



Plays about the NHS are like buses… As National Theatre prepare to open Nye next week, another London theatre just pip them with their own NHS centric show as Donmar Warehouse hopes to repeat their incredible and well received programming that made up 2023, but will the world premiere of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Human Body be just what the doctor ordered?


Set in Shropshire in 1948, The Human Body sees worlds collide as GP and Labour party councillor Iris Elcock prepares to launch Nye Bevan’s National Health Service Act. However, her life is turned upside down when she meets Hollywood actor George Blythe. A whirlwind romance ensues despite both being married to others, leading Iris to question her own life and what the priorities are in a play that combines health, heart and Hollywood with a few surprises along the way.


Lucy Kirkwood has crafted a clever and multi-layered story which takes worlds that might not seem obviously compatible and finds a way to marry the two. Politics plays a big part of The Human Body as characters with differing backgrounds argue about the merits of a Labour government as opposed to a Conservative one as well as the impact the upcoming NHS might have. Though it is set more than 75 years ago, the topics of conversation feel remarkably relevant, particularly one far too on-the-nose morsel of dialogue which mentions the NHS not having enough beds, nurses or being paid enough. Sound familiar?

The second story that plays out alongside politics is passion as a love story between Iris and George emerges. At times feeling like two separate plays stitched together but whose overlapping strands add to the grandeur of the story, the nature of their affair plays out with extreme romanticism, feeling fittingly like an old Hollywood movie. A genius stroke with the writing here is how the love story can be front and centre one moment and then take a backseat for considerable chunks of time, with the lovers time together far more limited in the second act as opposed to the first.


With moments of humour throughout, a shifting tone attempts to fill The Human Body with contrasting elements which work together immeasurably well. One sudden revelation towards the show’s climax changes the tone drastically in a flawlessly executed and painfully real sequence involving a secret George has been keeping, which to me was the perfect example of what made me love this play as much as I did.

In his final production as Artistic Director at the Donmar, Michael Longhurst reunites with Ann Yee to direct The Human Body. They made pure theatrical magic last year with Next To Normal, soon to be seen in a West End transfer, and they’ve done it again here. A bare stage with a constant slow-moving revolve is used to incredible effect, perfectly playing to the audience surrounding three sides of the stage with a meticulous attention to detail. With no shortage of truly inspired choices, this team of directors once again prove how masterfully skilled they are at their craft.


Fly Davis’ design takes the bare stage and bathes it in blue paint with all props also painted the same. Striking the right balance between the black and white world and iris’ attempts to get some colour in her life, it is a choice that proves visually pleasing and highly effective. Joshua Pharo’s lighting is used in creative measures to replicate the mix of movie glamour and the more gritty reality the characters face themselves in. The Human Body sounds every bit as flawless as it looks with Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design stunningly turning elements into a classic movie. The hard working stage crew also deserve a mention as their relentless necessity to bring on a never-ending supply of props and interact with the cast puts them more in the spotlight than you would usually see, shining a light on how integral they are to a play such as this.

As we have seen in recent productions of Sunset Boulevard and The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Human Body also uses an ingenious use of live filming, blurring the lines between theatre and film in what appears to be a growing trend and one I am very much in love with personally. With video design from Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom, several cameras placed around the theatre and an operator moving around the cast recreates the feel of a classic movie, usually whenever George Blythe (Jack Davenport) is on stage. In a deliberate nod to his career as a Hollywood actor, his scenes with iris (Keeley Hawes) plays out as if in a movie with gorgeous close-ups and arty shots taking my breath away in their beauty. As artfully done as in those other aforementioned productions, it creates a special aesthetic to the show, executed to perfection and accompanied by some rather gorgeous music. At times you feel like you are watching a classic black and white movie from the 1940s, at other times you feel like you are in the movie yourself in an effortlessly excellent form of escapism.


You may have gathered all of the content and production elements of The Human Body blew me away, but what about the cast? If anything, they were even better. Jack Davenport is full of charisma in a cool portrayal of George Blythe, managing to bring the movie star persona to life while showing some more complicated and imperfect elements to his character and private life in what is a remarkable feat of acting. A gifted performer, he lit up the stage whenever he appeared, even when his time became increasingly limited.


Tom Goodman-Hill delights in a series of characters, most notably as Iris’ husband Julian Elcock. In this particular character, he is tortured and tormented and does a fine job of realising this in his choices. Pearl Mackie shows enormous versatility in her series of characters in the show, but it is her time as George’s wife Sylvia Samuels that remains in your memory long after leaving the theatre. Without spoiling anything in the show, one specific scene she dominates is incredible to witness and a testament to Pearl’s immeasurable skill as a performer. Siobhan Redmond’s performances as a series of characters are big, bold and brash – always pleasing to watch. From George’s mother Mrs Howells to iris’ sister-in-law and several others in-between, she shines at every turn.


While all the cast are fantastic in their own way, The Human Body is a star vehicle for Keeley Hawes – and what a star she is. In an exhausting performance that sees her remain on the stage for all but the briefest of moments, Keeley proves to be an absolute force of nature in her turn as Iris Elcock. As the character goes on a journey and deals with conflicting and confusing aspects of her personality and growth, Keeley embodies this with a natural sensitivity that truly illuminates not only the character but her acting in itself. Already a well-loved performer from her numerous TV roles, witnessing this talent in the flesh on stage felt incredibly special in what can only be described as a true masterclass performance. Raw, Emotional, Natural and stunning all around, Keeley delivers a performance that is sure to be talked about for a while yet and may even earn her some award nominations.

Let’s not sugar-coat it - The Human Body is a beast of a show. Bold and ambitious in its approach, its attempts to take some huge and contrasting strands such as the NHS and a Hollywood love story may have created a convoluted mess in other hands. Add in the tricky production elements this show has aimed for, and it could have gone so wrong. Thankfully, an expert team here didn’t allow that to happen. Lucky Kirkwood’s layered and nuanced writing allows Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee’s direction to create a gripping and awe-inspiring production – and then there’s the cast. All wonderful in their own right but a particularly outstanding turn from Keeley Hawes has created a mesmerising and moving production. If it wasn’t obvious enough from this adoring review, I loved every single thing about this gorgeous show and can’t fault it at all. While it may not to be everybody’s taste, The Human Body is everything I want theatre to be and more.


The Human Body plays at Donmar Warehouse until 13th April. Tickets from 


Photos by Marc Brenner


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