Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“Michael Sheen is electrifying in NHS origin story “

Tim Price

Critical Compilation for “Nye” , National Theatre & Wales Millennium Centre , March 10, 2024
Tim Price by Critical Compilation for “Nye” 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:

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Clive Davis made the comparison with James Graham:

“This co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre has some of the primary colour paciness of the “Dear England”...Sometimes it's less a play, and more a pageant, albeit one that's vividly directed by the National's outgoing boss, Rufus Norris. `But where we might be content not to learn much about Southgate's inner life, Price's script rattles through so many episodes that, after the end of more than two and a half hours, you are left wondering how much you really learn about Bevan's personality and beliefs....Sheen burns with genuine passion. His charisma fills the gaps in the script.”

Source: the Times, by subscription.

* * * *

Sarah Hemming made the same comparison:

“A mighty, moving and sometimes messy theatre play, at heart it's a state-of-the-nation play. And like “Dear England” and “Standing at the Sky's Edge” before it, “Nye” seizes the venue's potential as a national public forum to frame critical questions about who we are and who we want to be

“There's a tendency to reach for stereotypes...There's also so much going that we don't get enough of an up-close study of Bevan the man...But this is, unashamedly, a play about principle, passion and compassion, driven by a fantastic ensemble and an electrifying performance from Sheen.”

Source: the Financial Times, by subscription

* * * *

Dominic Maxwell asked for more politics:

“It feels odd to say it, but this sprawling bio-play about Aneurin Bevan, the man who forced through the creation of the NHS, could do with a bit more politics...Yet throughout almost three hours of stage time, it keeps feeling as if is teeing us up for great events rather than fully dramatising them. It doesn't want to be a James Graham-style drama all about the formation of the NHS. Yet it throws so much at us that it can't help but feel like an artfully staged Wikipedia entry.

“Indeed, with so much to get through, so much of what Nye does is described more than reported.”

Source: the Sunday Times, by subscription

* * * *

Susanna Clapp was alone in disfavour. On Radio Wales Arts Show:

“It wasn't my show for two reasons. The exposition was over-didactic. It had a very skittish way of presenting material, almost apologetically playful. When Clement Attlee was trying to persuade him to enter the Cabinet Bevan was reluctant to take it on. Something extraordinary happened to the furniture. Not only distracting but the reverse of distracting, it made one feel it made up this slightly finger-wagging didactic, exposition part of the play.

She was alson Radio 4's Front Row with Boyd Hilton who said: “I was slightly dreading it. I was amazed. Imaginative, playful, funny. I was amazed how entertaining it was. I was absolutely gripped.”

Susanna Clapp: “It didn't work for me, the ludic, the insistence on it being frolicsome, the script was too explanatory, the more explanatory it got the more frolicsome the production became, exposed the heaviness of it of some of it. It is not a good play. It seemed effortful to me.”

* * * *

She repeated her view in the Observer:

“Nye” is a fevered dream....The form is fractured, giddy: Vicki Mortimer’s design does a good job of hallucinatory blending, effortlessly swishing the institutional green of hospital curtains into the ranks of the House of Commons. Yet the dialogue is dogged, grab-you-by-the-collar instructional. Interesting nuggets become mechanical explanation: his father’s suffering left Bevan with a legacy of wanting to take care of everyone; horrible bullying by a schoolteacher awakened his sense of injustice.

“...infected with a dreadful larkiness, which goes beyond conveying the weirdness of fever. At any particularly didactic moment, the furniture starts moving. Hospital beds are continually being tipped up so that their inhabitants are perkily vertical...Doctors who resisted the idea of the NHS, Tory politicians with long faces and overextended vowels are pop-up villains.”

“...performance is fiery but not indulgent, putting across (even in bulky, rose-tinted pyjamas) the power of the man, the motor of his conviction, and – in wooing his future wife, Jennie Lee – his purring, self-mocking humour.”

* * * *

The Independent:

“Tim Price and outgoing National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris have turned this welfare state origin story into a weird, sometimes baggy reverie, enlivened with poignant biographical insights. At first, Sheen is touchingly delighted to be treated by the public health system he helped dream into existence, a vision as beautiful as the sunny-hued daffodils on each bedside table. But the mood soon darkens as he’s lost in post-operative hallucinations: the sadistic schoolteacher who beat him for his stammer, the black lung-afflicted miner father who – ironically – he couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

“It’s a bit of a tired theatrical set-up, to have an ageing famous figure reliving his life in convenient vignettes. But although the text periodically sags, Norris’s direction keeps things nimble and strange. Nye’s first trip to the library is a thing of wonder, with Beauty and the Beast-style living bookshelves beckoning him into a world of learning. The town council meeting where he makes his first, revolutionary France-inspired political manoeuvres unfolds on tables made of hospital beds, patients still in them.

“Accordingly, Sheen plays Nye with a touchingly boy-like sense of gentleness and wonder: but sometimes this performance is at odds with what we’re told about this obstreperous, stubborn, womanising political operator.”


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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

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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