Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“Michael Sheen is electrifying in NHS origin story"

At Wales Millennium Centre

Nye- Critical Compilation for Tim Price Drama , National Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre , March 14, 2024
At Wales Millennium Centre by Nye- Critical Compilation for Tim Price Drama For many a month March 6th, press night at the Olivier Theatre, had been red-circled in my diary. But, in the way of life, circumstance intervened. I was not there but every critic who counts was there to see a cast of actors of Wales from across the generations.

For Tim Price it has been an ascent of many years: National Youth Theatre of Wales in 2007, National Theatre of Wales in 2011, National Theatre of United Kingdom in 2024.

The company has names who over the years have lit up the stages of Wales across every county:

Bea Holland, Daniel Hawksford, David Monteith, Dyfan Dwyfor, Kezrena James, Lee Mengo, Matthew Bulgo, Michael Keane, Michael Sheen, Nicholas Khan, Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins, Rebecca Killick, Remy Beasley, Rhodri Meilir, Roger Evans, Sharon Small, Stephanie Jacob, Tony Jayawardena, Jon Furlong, Mali O'Donnell, Ross Foley, Mark Matthews, Ashley Mejri, Sara Otung

The headlines for Rufus Norris' production were alike.

“Michael Sheen is electrifying in NHS origin story “Nye.” Moving drama about the founding father of the health service unfolds as a dreamlike fantasia at the National Theatre” said the Financial Times.

“A valiant and valuable affirmation of the NHS. Michael Sheen is in his element as NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, in Tim Price’s rousing new drama” wrote Dominic Maxwell.

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Sam Marlowe was there for the Stage:

“....Part morphine dream, part episodic bio-drama and part sociopolitical cartoon strip, Price’s piece loops back into the early life of the father of the NHS as a book-mad miner’s son, before charting his career and transformative achievements. It’s crammed with information but remains surface-skimming; broad, highly coloured portrayals of friends, family and historical figures swoop past in a procession of stylised, episodic scenes.

“...Vicki Mortimer’s set is a kaleidoscope of green hospital screens; Bevan’s story plays out on a pristine ward, white-coated doctors and nurses in neat, starched hats in solicitous attendance. Also at his bedside is his old friend and political comrade Archie Lush (Roger Evans), and Bevan’s wife, the Scottish Labour MP Jennie Lee (Sharon Small). As the drugs kick in, Sheen’s Nye, rumpled and teddy-bearish in striped pyjamas, journeys back to the Welsh mining town of Tredegar where he was born and then, via local politics, to Westminster and his fight, as minister for health and housing in Clement Attlee’s government, to force through his controversial NHS bill. 

“...Much of the action has a vivid, Dennis Potter-style wooziness. Hospital beds transform into desks or doorways. A schoolroom scene sees the teacher who cruelly torments Nye for his stutter wielding a pair of six-foot canes to beat children with; a mob of MPs in the Commons tea room eavesdrop, gossip and rattle their teacups in perfect synchronisation, choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Jess Williams. Ranks of surgical-masked medics and legions of the desperate sick and poor appear in Jon Driscoll’s video imagery, and as Bevan’s painkillers kick in, Sheen even leads a sparkling, drug-addled song-and-dance rendition of Get Happy.

“...Nye’s fervent advocacy for working people, and his determination to “look after everyone” rings through it all; and scenes in which his father dies in agony from black lung, or he himself is tenderly passed, in Hoggett and Williams’ exquisitely expressive movement, between medical professionals, cut swiftly to the heart of matter. Imperfect, but stirringly impassioned.”

Extract, with thanks and acknowledgement, from the full review which can be read at:

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Nick Curtis at the Standard:

“Michael Sheen’s performance as the creator of the NHS Aneurin Bevan here is, fittingly, a triumph against the odds. ..his charisma, along with goodwill toward the NHS, gets Rufus Norris’s playfully earnest co-production for the National and Wales Millennium Centre over the line.

“...Bevan’s exceptionalism shines through, but with so much history to cover the show feels skimpy at times. His role in the General Strike of 1926 is skipped over: the Second World War and subsequent Labour landslide are condensed into four minutes.

“The comparisons Price draws between self-serving, right-wing politicians then and now feel heavy handed, even to a knee-jerk lefty like me. “You don’t need to steamroller everyone all the time,” as Nye’s future wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) tells him. Quite.

“On the plus side, the general air of reverence is frequently undercut with humour. Tony Jayawardena is a hilariously brazen Churchill. Stephanie Jacob’s Attlee glides around the stage behind a motorised Prime Ministerial desk like a beady, centrist Davros. Nye and his rivals, and Jennie and his childhood friend Archie (Roger Evans), often descend into juvenile, sweary abuse.

“Nye is stalked by packs of opponents scenting blood and borne aloft by schoolmates and medics. It’s all about humanity, and the story we choose to tell about ourselves as a nation. But it’s also about one remarkable man. Tim Price may not have written the most subtle version of Nye, but Sheen fills him with zest.”

Extract, with thanks and acknowledgement, from the full review which can be read at:

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From Time Out:

“Michael Sheen is tremendous as NHS founder Aneurin Bevan, even if the play’s fear of bio-drama cliches gets a bit much

“’s understandable that playwright Tim Price and director Rufus Norris are wary of dewy-eyed hagiography when approaching ‘Nye’...Crowned by a truly uncanny wig, Sheen is a delight as the fiery but unassuming Bevan. He never at any point changes out of his red striped pyjamas, a pleasingly absurdist touch at the heart of Norris’s stylish production, in which the green hospital ward repeatedly dissolves into the past to the sound of wheezing lungs.

“It’s otherworldly in places, especially the scene where Tony Jayawardena’s overbearing Churchill collars Bevan in the Commons and groups of teacup-clutching MPs try to eavesdrop, moving like insectoid predators under Stephen Hoggett and Jess WIlliams’s unsettling choreography.

“Really, though, once you get past all the cool stuff, you’re left with a fairly conventional drama, jumbled up.... his scenes in Parliament are particularly riveting, as he is doggedly determined to criticise Churchill’s wartime government, to the chagrin of his boss Clement Atlee (Stephanie Jacob).

“...all the hopping around leaves ‘Nye’ somewhat lacking in connective material...However, if the whole isn’t quite there, most of the individual scenes are scintillating.”

Extract, with thanks and acknowledgement, from the full review which can be read at:

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Arifa Akbar at the Guardian:

“...As Bevan (Michael Sheen) is creeping towards death, flashbacks of memory bring a hallucinatory quality reminiscent of The Singing Detective: beds and ward curtains are woven into scenes of his childhood as a Welsh miner’s son and a stammering schoolboy bullied by his headteacher. We follow his rise from local council politics to the House of Commons and high office under Clement Attlee (Stephanie Jacob, slightly sinister in a bald wig). Doctors and nurses morph into a bevy of characters from his past, the cast juggling this multiplicity adeptly, and there is a surreal song and dance breakout number as, one presumes, Bevan’s morphine kicks in.

“In a production written by Tim Price and directed by Rufus Norris, there is some inspired stagecraft as the hospital curtains of Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set swish to reveal debating chambers and libraries. But the narrative is too long-reaching and schematic, its extensively researched material not fully absorbed dramatically.

“...So much is packed in that the momentous invention of the NHS is tackled, as if in summary, in the last half hour....“Sheen (grey helmet hair, chequered pyjamas) is well cast for his natural charm. He brings a curious fey playfulness and vulnerability but does not plumb the depths of his commanding character – or perhaps the busy script simply does not allow it. However, Bevan’s limitations as a son to his dying father bring some emotional mileage as he is too busy caring for the nation’s wellbeing to be there for him.

“...“Nye is still a vital play because Bevan is a vital man of British history. It succeeds in showing us just how high the hurdles he faced were. When he describes prewar healthcare – one service for the rich, one for the poor – it rings of today’s two-tiered system. “I want to give you your dignity,” he says, as the NHS launches.”

Extract, with thanks and acknowledgement, from the full review which can be read at:

* * * *

Credits for “Nye”

Composer Will Stuart

Director Rufus Norris

Associate director Francesca Goodridge

Choreographer Steven Hoggett, Jess Williams

Set designer Vicki Mortimer

Costume designer Kinnetia Isidore

Lighting designer Paule Constable

Sound designer Donato Wharton

Video/projection designer Jon Driscoll

Vocal/dialect coach Cathleen McCarron, Patricia Logue, Tamsin Newlands

Casting director Alastair Coomer, Chloe Blake

Production manager Jim Leaver

Company stage manager Shane Thom

Deputy stage manager Anna Hill

Assistant stage manager Jo Phipps, Sophie Mclean

Picture: Johan Persson

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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