Nye review – National Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Michael Sheen (Nye Bevan). Photo: Johan Persson

Tim Price’s new play about the life of Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, directed by Rufus Norris and featuring a wonderful central performance by Michael Sheen in the title role, is a fever dream of a production – quite literally. It follows Bevan’s life from his childhood in Wales where he struggles with his stutter to the heights of his political career and the creation of the National Health Service in 1948, each event in his life told in the form of hallucinations from his death bed in one of the hospitals he himself helped to establish. “So nice. Seeing it. Without everyone… standing on ceremony. Isn’t it?” he says to his wife, and fellow politician, Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) on waking from an operation to remove a stomach ulcer.

The operation has not been entirely successful and Bevan requires pain relief that sends him into the strange world where he relives the events that led to his greatest political success in the NHS, with the occupants and staff of the hospital embodying the people of his past. The matron becomes Clementee Atlee (Stephanie Jacob), the nurse becomes his sister Arianwen (Kezrena James), one doctor becomes Neville Chamberlain (Nicholas Khan) and another becomes Winston Churchill (Tony Jayawardena).

Tony Jayawardena (Winston Churchill) and Michael Sheen (Nye Bevan). Photo: Johan Persson

The construct does feel strangely unnecessary, though it provides the opportunity for some wonderful stagecraft with the green curtains of the hospital wards becoming the green benches of the House of Commons and hospital beds transforming into council chambers or doorways that open, despite their occupants – and there is something inherently comic in the permanently pyjamaed and barefoot Nye involving himself in council debates, making parliamentary speeches and standing up to the towering Winston Churchill (notably caricatured by Jayawardena) as war rages across Europe.

Sheen, on stage throughout is clearly the star – full of passion but with an impish quality to his every interaction, you get the sense of a man filled with desire to do good for the right reasons. He also brings Bevan’s sense of his bewilderment at each hallucinatory interaction, balancing how the past Bevan interacted with the scenario with how the older Bevan is now viewing from the future – no mean feat. Other performances across the large ensemble are constrained by the format, with each actor playing multiple roles and only a couple of characters who exist for more than a handful of scenes.

The cast of Nye. Photo: Johan Persson

Price finds himself somewhat caught between telling the story of the man who created the NHS and telling the story of the NHS’s creation. It is very much the former, but in its final act, it feels like it sways towards the latter – swelling with sentimentalism for the sheer seismic political achievement that the NHS was, and is. Many may feel the latter elements should have warranted expansion – there may be merit in that, but it would be a different play, for good or bad. Whatever your view on the play, though, Sheen is worth the visit.

Nye is in the Olivier theatre, National Theatre, London, until 11 May 2024. Then at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff from 18 May to 1 June 2024. It screens as part of National Theatre Live on 23 April 2024