Life & Culture

The Human Body review: silver-screen style... NHS substance


Homage: Pearl Mackie, Jack Davenport and Tom Goodman on stage at the Donmar Warehouse

Donmar Warehouse | ★★★★✩

There is almost as much substance as there is style to Lucy Kirkwood’s new play. Set in 1948 with a superbly cast Keeley Hawes as upper-middle-class GP and prospective Labour MP Iris Elcock, the play ambitiously melds Brief Encounter romanticism with the grit and determination that went into establishing the National Health Service. Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee’s production is a homage to both the film and the health service.

Onstage cameras project the performances in black and white live video turning the back of the stage into a cinema screen.

This is never quite done as cleverly as it is in shows such as the recent revival of Sunset Boulevard or the current The Picture of Dorian Gray, though. At times the evening feels over-conceptualised as if every idea posited in the first production meeting was chucked into the show.

When we first encounter Hawes’s Iris she is the picture of a modern woman as depicted in a patronising, male-narrated newsreel.

Later she is the pitch-perfect equivalent of Celia Johnson’s Laura, which is to say decency personified.

What is so surprising is that when married Iris encounters the easy charm of actor George Blythe (Jack Davenport) on the train home from Westminster, where she is throwing herself into the work of establishing the NHS, Kirkwood fully embraces their romance — most playwrights might be tempted to subvert and sneer at it.

Yet there is realism here too thanks in large measure to Hawes who is on stunning form.

Her Iris has the stand-out beauty of a film star in the post-war English rose mould, but there is also passion and impatience with everything and anyone (including her own less than brilliant ten-year-old daughter) who gets in the way of her ambition. Her clipped received pronunciation and emotional control is beautifully rendered while her bitter war-wounded husband, Tom Goodman-Hill, is a great foil to Iris’s generosity of spirit. The production falls just short of brilliance. But crucially it avoids the tub-thumping proselytizing that could so easily go with a play with socially conscious themes. Instead there is an unashamed love for two quintessentially British institutions – the NHS and the silver screen.

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