Nye, written by Tim Price and directed by Rufus Norris, is a slick but well-worn ride through some of the major events of Nye Bevan’s life. While its thematic and political deficiencies are abundant throughout, charm and style cling to every set of hospital curtains and pyjamas, making for an entertaining albeit frustrating way to spend an evening.

Ahead of the humid nighttime showing in Cardiff’s spaceship-like Wales Millenium Centre, I already had a broad outline of the sort of review I was likely to write. That there is the legend of Bevan: the maverick firebrand who forged the NHS into being through sheer force of will and rampaged across Parliament for decades who exists in the public’s mind’s eye, and another Bevan, a figure of staggering intellect, nuanced politics, and occasionally muddled motivations that existed in his writing. My prediction being that this play, led by Wales’s premier professional Welshman Michael Sheen would likely cover the legend, providing opportunity to talk about the other Bevan. Sadly Norris’s play is so thin on other aspects of Nye’s politics that this is not the case.

The central conceit of the play, that Nye is hallucinating the major events of his life while in a morphine-addled stupor, is a trite one. It should, however, have provided licence for any chapter of his life to be plumbed for insight into who he was as a person. Instead it was utilised to hastily flatten Bevan’s character and remove any of his sharp edges from display.

This is no more apparent than with Bevan’s relationship with his sister Arianwen and the pressure the illness of his father placed on her, both as a carer and provider for the Bevan family. We are given to believe that the death of Bevan’s father is the central motivating reason for his passion for the foundation of the NHS – but no consideration is ever given to the burden that weighed on Arianwen or if Bevan ever reckoned with his role in narrowing her life.

Similarly Jenny Lee’s character is diminished throughout, and although this is only explicitly addressed when at the end of Bevan’s life she rages at the sacrifices she has made for him, we never get a rounded sense of how great her importance was in that era, or her internal life beyond their respective affairs.

The focus solely on the sick rather than the broader picture of health, was also evident in the health and housing refrain. Arguably, the better encapsulation of Bevan’s political outlook was found in his approach to housing. The manner in which he insisted upon the working classes having rooms for entertaining and leisure as much as ample room for the basics is a testament to both part of the reason why not enough were built during his tenure, and why Bevan’s ambition is still admired to this day.

It’s also a tangible link between Bevan the politician and Bevan the person, a working class socialist to be sure, but one who loved to drink champagne and entertain as well. His politics weren’t just about survival, they were about opening up the good life to everyone. It’s the sort of outlook that feels absolutely foreign in today’s Britain, but Lula’s promise of barbeques and beer shows that it can still resonate.

Throughout the play we also get no sense of Nye’s various turns at statecraft, or his fascination with foreign affairs. As demonstrated in the brilliant whistle-stop tour through the thinking of Nye Bevan, This is my Truth: Aneurin Bevan in Tribune, Bevan had a staggering intellect and frequently opined about the state of the world beyond the British Isles. He had muddied views on Britain’s place in the world and contorted himself into various positions (most notably on nuclear weapons) either as attempts at personal advancement or genuine evolutions of his own personal philosophy, depending on your point of view. None of which, even as background, came through in Sheen’s characterisation. 

The NHS looms large in British public life, but its foundation and the politics that motivated it had much deeper roots than the play would have you believe. That documents like the Beveridge Report found themselves omitted, in favour of reducing the health service’s foundation to the product of one man’s Tredegar upbringing, is a far too sentimental and incomplete view of the time even by the standards of this play.

While the words of the Welsh hymn Calon Lân rang through the Wales Millenium Centre and Bevan’s limp body was passed around by the doctors, several around me burst into tears at the image of the great man passing on. I suppose that is the enduring message I took from this play, that the death of a great socialist can still move people to tears, and however many hang ups I had about the missed opportunities to explore one of Britain’s most interesting politicians, the fact the legend of Nye Bevan persists and continues to move people, is perhaps more than enough. 

This review was made possible, in part, by the kind donations of readers of The Social Review which paid for a portion of the ticket cost. If you want to continue to help writers on the left get their start, donate here