Review: Nye, Wales Millennium Centre

Tom Kemp reviews much-applauded production Nye, now running at the Wales Millennium Centre.

Following rave reviews from its London run, Tim Price’s new play Nye comes home to Cardiff. This joyous and important production, co-produced by the National Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre, follows Aneurin “Nye” Bevan’s impressive journey from the coalfields of Tredegar to the cabinet rooms at 10 Downing Street.

The play begins, ironically, near the end of Bevan’s (Michael Sheen) life, with a very meta scene in which he is rushed into a hospital for ‘an operation in a hospital you built’. As his treatment begins and Bevan slips in and out of deep sleep, the audience is transported back to the beginning of his life in Tredegar. Bullied and caned by his schoolteacher, Bevan is portrayed as a young, stuttering schoolboy alongside his classmates. Through a clever scene change and a fantastic physical theatre moment, his first visit to the local library is depicted. His emotional and empowering journey of overcoming his stutter by falling in love with books is shown, and he learns a rich vocabulary that ultimately helps him deliver several politically powerful speeches throughout his career. This moment provides the first glimpse of Bevan’s potential to achieve whatever he sets his mind to.

Underscored by the Churchill wartime historical backdrop, the pace quickens as his political career progresses from the small, local boardrooms of South Wales to the green benches of the House of Commons, and ultimately into Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s office. Bevan is then appointed Minister for Health and Housing in 1945, where the audience witnesses his fight to ‘Tredegarise’ the nation and establish a national health service.

Michael Sheen’s performance can only be commended. He was fantastic in his role, an obvious casting choice as his portrayal of Bevan was deeply emotional and moving, especially while passionately delivering powerful and motivational political speeches. He brought energy and complexity to the role, highlighting the inner conflict he battled while the audience saw the paradox between Bevan’s dedication to the health and well-being of the entire country and the neglect he showed for the health of his dying father, wonderfully portrayed by Rhodri Meilir.

While there were several emotional moments throughout the play, with a few tears visibly shed in the audience, ultimately Nye is a feel-good, joyous must-see production sprinkled with comedy.

Directed by Rufus Norris, Nye delivers the story of how the NHS was formed in a remarkably clear manner, evincing a sense of investment and pride, particularly for Welsh audience members. Co-choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Jess Williams, elements of physical theatre, such as in the library scene where Sheen is lifted by the ensemble to reach the highest shelves of books, are a hallmark of National Theatre productions and were particularly impressive as always. More of these elements sprinkled throughout the play, especially in the second act, would have been appreciated.

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With an arguably long running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes, the play, led by Sheen and supported by the fantastic ensemble, never feels too long or too rushed. 

In various ways, the production cleverly blends its core themes of politics, health, ill-health and Welsh heritage. This is evident in the set designed by Vicki Mortimer, which used hospital beds as tables and doors, and in the costumes by designer Kinnetia Isidore, where miners’ hats were worn by hospital porters even in the Prime Minister’s office, while Bevan is portrayed barefoot in his red striped pyjamas throughout the play. I was initially sceptical about the set, but the clinical feel of the green curtains and patterned hospital floor tiles, complete with fluorescent lighting, was perfect. By varying their levels, the set effortlessly transformed into the instantly recognizable green chairs of the House of Commons, making it immediately clear where the scene was set before any dialogue began.

In addition, Nye benefitted from projection design by Jon Driscoll. Periodically, breathing lungs are projected on the clinical green curtains, which didn’t seem necessary. Nonetheless, later in the play, a lone Bevan centre-stage, towered by a projection of hundreds of doctors negotiating their terms and conditions for the proposed national health service, effectively conveyed the immense difficulty of Bevan’s battle, especially as the narrative that no health minister had ever managed to get the doctors on their side was emphasized throughout the second act.

The production had the distinctive feel of a National Theatre production and feels well-suited to be shown on the biggest stage in Wales. While there were several emotional moments throughout the play, with a few tears visibly shed in the audience, ultimately Nye is a feel-good, joyous must-see production sprinkled with comedy.

Nye plays at the Wales Millennium Centre until June 1st, with limited tickets available. National Theatre Live performances are also showing at various cinemas over the coming weeks.

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Tom Kemp is a South Wales based creative freelancer. Kemp is a working bi-lingual actor, presenter and writer.

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