Photo: National Theatre

Nye, a play about the life of the Labour MP who founded the NHS succeeds in a strong and inventive dramatization of his life and politics, finds Lindsey German 

I don’t quite know what I expected from this play about Nye Bevan, left-Labour politician and founder of the NHS, but it was pleasantly surprising. The whole play is performed in flashback as Nye lies dying in a hospital bed – an NHS one of course, with scenes from his childhood, from his political activity as a victimised Welsh miner, from fighting the gruesome Tories in parliament, all shown as part of a morphine-induced dream. 

The story of Nye Bevan is straightforward: born at the end of the nineteenth century in the Welsh mining village of Tredegar, Bevan is bullied for his stammer by his teacher, goes down the pits, is laid off like many others, and campaigns to take over the local council to run it for the benefit of the miners and their families, rather than the coal owners. From there, it is a short step to becoming an MP, entering parliament, marrying fellow MP Jennie Lee, being a left rebel, joining the 1945 Labour cabinet under Clement Attlee, and introducing a national health service free at the point of use for everyone, despite bitter opposition from the Tories and the medical profession. 

The set is really inventive, with hospital beds being turned on their sides – sometimes with the patients still in them – to provide desks or tables, projections of consultants opposing the new health service on stage curtains, and parliament as a rowdy claque. 

It is also surprisingly funny and fast moving, at times echoing the television series The Singing Detective with actors breaking into song and dance. Then there is the role of lead actor Michael Sheen, who plays the whole thing barefoot in pyjamas and who holds the whole series of sketches together. 

The play gives the biographical details real life. We see Nye’s friends standing up for him against the teacher; the political discussion group which plans taking over the council (and where one actor describes reading a pamphlet about the Paris Commune and bemoans that no one will discuss it with him); the troubled relationship with his miner father, dying of pneumoconiosis, or ‘black lung’ disease. We see him overcoming his speech disability to become one the greatest orators of his generation. And we see him battling with his own side as well as the vested interests of private medicine to create the NHS. 

There’s a great scene where he debates with right-wing Labour MP Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson) who refuses to support his plan, and perhaps most powerful is the clamour of resistance to change from the doctors, who refused to become employees of the NHS. 

That he wins out is a tribute to his courage and determination, but Nye also sometimes compromised in ways that don’t reflect well on him. One is shown in the play where he agrees to back Churchill in a wartime confidence vote; another – not shown – is his famous abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament at a Labour conference. In many ways, the man reflected the strengths and weaknesses of left Labourism, especially in South Wales, where there was a strong self-educated political tradition among the miners.  

It combined very strong opposition to the system and to the ruling class, high levels of class consciousness, with a belief that change could come through electoral means. That in turn meant even the best socialists in Labour were prone to compromise for electoral gain. 

The play ends with Nye carrying his dying miner father to the front of the stage in recognition of the hard life and early deaths of so many miners. It is both moving and timely as we see the NHS under the greatest threat from privatisation and underfunding – including from Labour politicians. When I went, a good half of the audience gave it a standing ovation, both in recognition of the acting, direction and set design, but also as an ovation to an achievement which was truly historic, and which changed the lives of millions of people. 

If you can catch this in London, Cardiff or in cinemas next week, then do try to. It is a strong and political piece of theatre. 

Nye is showing at the National Theatre London, then Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, and showing in cinemas 23 April. 

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.