Review: Nye, National Theatre

Rufus Norris’ production lends Tim Price’s Nye an absurdist energy at the National Theatre

“I want to give you your dignity,”

Tim Price’s Nye arrives at the National Theatre in a co-production with Wales Millennium Centre and scheduled to be NT Live’s 100th broadcast, suitably grand ambitions for a play devoted to the man who created the National Health Service in a 1948 Great Britain that had yet to build the affection for it that brought so many onto their doorsteps and balconies to applaud so much during the pandemic.

Nye begins at the end of Nye Bevan’s life, the politician now a patient in one of the hospitals he was responsible for and in his morphine-induced stupor, an “epic Welsh fantasia” springs to life like a fever dream writ large. Memories from his childhood merge with recollections of his political career, storytelling melds into song-and-dance, a massive sense of character shining through.

Rufus Norris’ production, allied with Vicki Mortimer’s design, brings a lot of visual inventiveness to a bio-drama that essentially ends up quite conventional. Even as we flashback repeatedly to the past, the narrative structure remains relatively straightforward, with perhaps just a little too much exposition as we navigate from childhood in the Valleys to striking career in the House of Commons.

The hints of the absurd work, particularly where Stephen Hoggett and Jess Williams’s exaggerated movement is concerned but dramatically, it doesn’t quite hang together, its fragments too disparate to really make its story punch through in a way that linger in the memory. There’s so much of interest – his antagonism of William Churchill, the hostility of the medical profession to the idea of the NHS, his marriage to Jennie Lee – you just want it to resonate more.

Michael Sheen’s be-pyjamaed performance does much to entertain in his charming way, even without the opportunity to delve deeper with his characterisation. The excellent Sharon Small feels even more underused as Lee, her role in the play shrinking as it progresses. The nature of the show does mean that we get some cracking multi-roling though, Tony Jayawardena’s Churchill and Stephanie Jacob’s Clement Attlee both standing out.

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