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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Susannah Clapp

The week in theatre: Nye; The Lonely Londoners; Hadestown – review

Michael Sheen (centre) in Nye.
‘Fevered dream’: Tim Price’s Nye, starring Michael Sheen, centre. Photograph: Johan Persson

What better time to consider the idea that British society can be reimagined and to look at the beginnings of the welfare state. Last week, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Human Body provided a whirligig version of post-second world war life seen through the eyes of a female doctor. Now Tim Price’s new play, co-produced with the Wales Millennium Centre, looks at the inspiring achievements of Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, the Welsh Labour firebrand who founded the NHS. It is a wasted opportunity.

Nye is a fevered dream. Beginning in 1960, with the 62-year-old Bevan in a hospital bed, the drama whisks back episodically: to schooldays and memories of the miner father who died of pneumoconiosis (“black lung” disease), through union and local council activity, to the magnificent transforming work as minister of health that made him a beacon of the left.

The form is fractured, giddy: Vicki Mortimer’s design does a good job of hallucinatory blending, effortlessly swishing the institutional green of hospital curtains into the ranks of the House of Commons. Yet the dialogue is dogged, grab-you-by-the-collar instructional. Interesting nuggets become mechanical explanation: his father’s suffering left Bevan with a legacy of wanting to take care of everyone; horrible bullying by a schoolteacher awakened his sense of injustice.

In the theatrical equivalent of the nervous giggle that overtakes someone on hearing bad news, Rufus Norris’s production is infected with a dreadful larkiness, which goes beyond conveying the weirdness of fever. At any particularly didactic moment, the furniture starts moving. Hospital beds are continually being tipped up so that their inhabitants are perkily vertical. When Clement Attlee (puzzlingly played by Stephanie Jacob sounding like Margaret Thatcher) persuades Bevan to take the health brief, his desk swings around the stage to corner him. Doctors who resisted the idea of the NHS, Tory politicians with long faces and overextended vowels are pop-up villains.

Bevan belonged to that interesting group: the fluent stammerer. Jonathan Miller, Christopher Hitchens and the Observer’s own Philip French were other shining members. Nye convincingly shows that the orator’s celebrated eloquence was a direct consequence of the difficulty that made a misery of his early life. Trying to dodge the words that began with unpronounceable consonants, he plundered books for synonyms and acquired a rich vocabulary.

In an excellent programme essay, Neil Kinnock describes Bevan’s delivery as “a mixture of brief hesitation and categoric emphasis”. Michael Sheen with his silken velocity could have overdone this; he does not. His performance is fiery but not indulgent, putting across (even in bulky, rose-tinted pyjamas) the power of the man, the motor of his conviction, and – in wooing his future wife, Jennie Lee – his purring, self-mocking humour. He has a match in Sharon Small’s Lee: fearless, visionary but tense and shot through with regret for having sacrificed her ambition to her man’s career. It’s a pity she is not given more of a shout (shouting was what she liked): Lee went on to become an MP who was celebrated not in spite of but because of being minister for the arts. That now seems almost incredible. Like the idea of a fully funded health service.

Let’s hear it for Roy Williams, whose plays – slanting towards documentary but leaping imaginatively, often focusing on the lives of black British men and women – have for 30 years enticed and squared up to audiences. He has supplied state-of-the-nation drama in Death of England; a gripping Radio 4 crime series, The Interrogation; a one-off slammer in Sucker Punch. Now he provides a vital adaptation of Sam Selvon’s marvellous 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners, capturing moments in the lives of the Windrush generation.

Selvon’s fiction – wry and clear-eyed – is a steady chronicle with an extraordinarily supple, distinctive style. It seems to speak, in Trinidadian patois, directly from the hearts of its characters; it contains a lolloping stream-of-consciousness passage that Virginia Woolf (who didn’t write in Trinidadian patois) would have envied.

Landladies and employers slam doors; children point; chaps huddle together. Principal characters leap from the stage as from the page. Romario Simpson’s Galahad is easy, rangy, pretending to be savvy while mangling London names such as Ladbroke Grave. As Moses, Gamba Cole blazes with hope and sadness, taking new arrivals into his bedsit, teaching them not to look people in the face (that scares white folk) and to catch and cook pigeons. Tobi Bakare is bleak and contained as Lewis: his disappointment sours into jealousy; he beats his wife.

Williams gives welcome extra space to the voices of women, who practise tongue-twisters and wrangle with market traders, and finely captures the roll of the men’s camaraderie: challenging, tetchy and necessary. Ebenezer Bamgboye’s production is fleet but smooths over some sharp edges with arty slo-mo writhing. Laura Ann Price’s pulsing orange design has no suggestion of 50s fog: it does, though, evoke the fire of London’s new citizens, many of them invited to England to work in Bevan’s NHS; many betrayed.

There is much to be grateful for in Hadestown, the musical composed by Anaïs Mitchell in 2006, which lands in the West End after a stint at the National and a hit run on Broadway. This rewiring of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has invitingly dark rasping tones, brass and soul and a terrific train number. The moment when Zachary James – boss of hell – lets rip in his rumbling bass about his intention to build walls to keep out the unwanted now looks like a prescient piece of electioneering. Gloria Onitiri’s Persephone – with jazz in her voice, a hip flask in her cleavage, and legs and arms of elastically long stretch – is magnetising.

Rachel Chavkin’s production nudges the musical world along but does not remake it. As Orpheus and Eurydice, Dónal Finn and Grace Hodgett Young are sweet-voiced but not powerful enough to make an audience resist the gravitational pull of Hades. The stage is so cramped that Orpheus’s trek back from the underworld looks tiny and stationary: he might be winding through one of the hairpin-bend queues for the Eurostar.

Star ratings (out of five)
Nye ★★
The Lonely Londoners ★★★★
Hadestown ★★★

  • Nye is at the Olivier, National Theatre, London, until 11 May

  • The Lonely Londoners is at Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 6 April

  • Hadestown is at the Lyric, London; booking until 22 December

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