Nye review – Michael Sheen looks back on the troubled birth of the NHS

This life story begins at the end, with Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan in a hospital bed, fitting for the visionary political giant who founded Britain’s National Health Service in 1948.

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

In a production written by Tim Price and directed by Rufus Norris, there’s inspired stagecraft as the hospital curtains of Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set swish to reveal debating chambers and libraries. But the story is too verbose and schematic, and the extensively researched material is not fully absorbed in a dramatic way.

Co-produced with the Wales Millennium Center and running over two and a half hours, Nye is an overly complete, yet oversimplified overview of the personal and political elements of Bevan’s world, with some high moments accompanied by syrupy music.

Personal and political… Tony Jayawardena as Winston Churchill with Sheen as Bevan in Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

Bevan is presented as a renegade, Jeremy Corbyn-esque figure of his time: both a thorn in the side of Winston Churchill (well played by Tony Jayawardena) and the Labor Party. There are council meetings, parliamentary debates, his first meeting with his wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small), the war and its aftermath. There’s so much in there that the momentous invention of the NHS, as summarized, is tackled in the last half hour.

Only then do we hear how the country’s doctors were strongly opposed to Bevan’s proposal. There are exchanges on a screen with an army of enemy medics that look like Minority Report holograms, but we whiz past this opposition, which has enough built-in conflict to be worthy of its own full-length drama.

Shine (gray helmet hair, plaid pajamas) has a good cast because of his natural charm. He brings a curious playfulness and vulnerability, but doesn’t fathom the depth of his impressive character – or perhaps the busy script just doesn’t allow it. However, Bevan’s limitations as the son of his dying father cause emotional problems as he is too busy caring for the well-being of the nation to be there for him.

Used for exposition…Sharon Small as Jennie Lee. Photo: Johan Persson

Small isn’t given much room to maneuver either, and Lee is used for exposition rather than dramatic purposes. She talks about her open marriage and describes Bevan as a ‘rutting deer’, who is at odds with the cute pajama-clad man on stage. There are brief reflections on navigating her career as Westminster’s youngest MP – and one of only five women – and her marriage. Both she and Bevan came from working class backgrounds and there is a moment where he talks about “impostor syndrome” in this sacred space. She is unequivocal in her outsider status: “That’s why this place needs us.” Despite these snappy lines, she remains flat, which seems like a crime – her character could have been much richer.

Nye is still an essential piece because Bevan is a vital man in British history. It manages to show us just how high the hurdles he faced were. When he describes pre-war health care – one service for the rich, one for the poor – this refers to the current two-tiered system. “I want to give you your dignity,” he says as the NHS gets underway. It’s a thrilling moment and yet contains a terrible, tragic irony, considering what will happen to his precious legacy.