Nye at the National Theatre review: Michael Sheen brings zest to this lumpy story of the founder of the NHS

Michael Sheen in Nye at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)
Michael Sheen in Nye at the National Theatre (Johan Persson)

Michael Sheen’s performance as the creator of the NHS Aneurin Bevan here is, fittingly, a triumph against the odds. The Welsh Labour MP known as ‘Nye’ faced down doctors, oppositional Tories led by Churchill, and sceptics in his own party to bring in our universal healthcare system in 1948.

Sheen, by turn, is battling a lumpy and obvious script by Tim Price and the challenges of Nye’s stutter, schoolboyish zeal and “f***ing stupid hair”. He’s also barefoot and in podgily unflattering pyjamas throughout, like a soft toy bought in haste in a hospital gift shop.

Yet 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.

Nye’s in his jim-jams because we first meet him in 1960, in hospital for an op on an ulcer that turns out to be something more serious. The show unfolds as a deathbed flashback.

Nye’s challenges and triumphs are ticked off one by one. Guilt about his miner father dying of “black lung”? Check. Poverty and unemployment? Check. Becoming an autodidact, a campaigning councillor and a maverick socialist MP? Check, check, check.

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

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.

Norris and designer Vicki Mortimer also use the large cast rather than massive sets to invoke a sense of scale and scope. Legions of the impoverished and ranks of implacable, masked doctors are projected onto the hospital curtains that whisk back and forth across the stage.

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.

National Theatre, to May 11;