Review: The Human Body, Donmar Warehouse

1940s stories are always catnip to me but Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport and fascinating direction really do elevate The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse

“I was perfectly happy being miserable”

Fresh off of the success that was The Witches (I hope it isn’t the last we see of that show), Lucy Kirkwood is back in theatres with The Human Body at the Donmar Warehouse – the slot for ‘NHS play at the National Theatre’ already taken up by Tim Price’s Nye which opens next week…. In his final production as Artistic Director, Michael Longhurst co-directs with Ann Yee and it is a dizzyingly romantic and charming work underpinned by some superb acting.

Its 1948 and Iris Elcock is keeping busy: as a Labour party councillor, she’s got her eyes on Parliament; as a GP, she’s also at the forefront of campaigning for the National Health Service Act; as a wife and mother, she’s got to deal with a husband who is also a GP but is firmly against the idea of the NHS and whose injuries from WWII have left him embittered in life and marriage. A brief encounter on a train with George, a dashing if minor league movie star also from Shropshire, threatens to up-end everything.

The reference to Brief Encounter is deliberate. Kirkwood, with Longhurst and Yee, is as interested in the world of 1940s film as the birth of the NHS and as flirtation ignites and dreams of a putative affair emerge, live video is used to bring Iris’ fantasies to life in black and white close-up projected onto the back wall of Fly Davis’ spare set. It’s not a new innovation but in such an intimate space, this really heightens the audience choice about what to watch in an interesting way.

It helps that Anna Cooper’s casting is nigh on perfect. Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport are completely in their wheelhouse as Iris and George and the production shimmers all the more for. Her uptight demeanour undone by unexpected passion is well-matched against his louche playfulness and slow recognition of the potential for something more. Tom Goodman-Hill, Pearl Mackie and Siobhán Redmond each deliver a masterclass in rapid multiroling, populating the world around them with such skill.

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