Life & Culture

An education in what made the creator of the NHS tick


The man in striped pyjamas: Michael Sheen as Anuerin Bevan


National Theatre | ★★★★✩

Reviewed by John Nathan

Tim Price’s play is an education for those (like me) who knew the name of the politician responsible for the National Health Service but little if anything about the man himself.

Thanks largely to Michael Sheen’s humorous and humane performance as Aneurin Bevan, by the time Rufus Norris’s whirligig of a production finishes you not only know much about the fears, motivations and character of the man known as Nye you become aware of a singular quality lacking in today’s political class — vision.

Set among infinitely adaptable layers of hospital curtains (design Vicki Mortimer) which in the wartime parliament scenes cleverly evoke green benches, Price constructs his play from Bevan’s morphine-induced memories as he recovers from an ulcer operation in one of the hospitals he created.

It is a vehicle that allows this remarkable life to be depicted via random flashbacks. Dressed in striped pyjamas throughout Nye is at turns: back at his Tredegar school where he was caned for his stammer; a gauche firebrand MP hitting on his socialist future wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small), or the lone voice of opposition during Winston Churchill’s wartime premiership. Most poignantly of all, this son of a Welsh miner holds his father as he dies in agony from “black lung”, an experience that fires Nye’s sense of injustice.

Yes, there is a sense of this being the play that the National Theatre would inevitably make about the NHS 75 years after its creation. And there are few insights here as interesting as the passing observation in Lucy Kirkwood’s current play at the Donmar Warehouse, The Human Body, which describes how Nye condemned his creation to being a political battleground by being ungracious to the Tories at the moment of victory.

But the reminder of how the nation’s doctors, here depicted as a sinister cult, opposed the creation of a health service to protect their own interests, usefully kiboshes any undeserved deference to the profession.

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