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Review: Nye by Tim Price at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Nye is a co-production between the National Theatre and the Wales Millennium Centre, and is the perfect setting for a story told in a series of flashbacks exploring Aneurin (Nye) Bevan’s life, from school days to his death at age 62 years.

Nye Bevan in case anyone in Wales didn’t know, oversaw the creation of the National Health Service (NHS) when appointed Minister for Health and Housing in the Attlee Government in June 1945.

This play is highly recommended for anyone who supports and cares about the NHS. Through short personal stories, it reminds us of a time when many people couldn’t afford healthcare.

For most of us, including myself, the NHS system is all we have ever known, and many people likely take it for granted. Remember, the NHS model is internationally recognised. Although it’s not perfect—because nothing ever is—it is often the envy of many people around the world. Nye’s story serves as a poignant reminder of how fortunate we truly are and provides insight into its origins.

Credit: Johann Persson

This production is especially timely as the UK enters an election year, with all political parties weighing in on the NHS.

Written by Welsh playwright Tim Price and directed by the National Theatre’s Artistic Director Rufus Norris, this play explores themes of compassion and principles.

The main character, Nye, had to be portrayed by the proud and passionate Welshman Michael Sheen. The Financial Times described his performance as “electrifying,” even though Sheen remains in pink striped pyjamas throughout the play.

Credit: Johann Persson

Nye Bevan has been quoted to say ‘I had to stuff the doctor’s mouths with gold, to get them to accept the NHS’, something which does surface in this production. I’m not sure this paints a particular great picture of doctors of the time, as you will see.

Michael Sheen, known for his pride in his Welsh heritage, has received critical acclaim for his performance as Nye Bevan. In our opinion, he is the perfect choice for this role.

This play is highly recommended for everyone who works or has worked in the NHS, or who has used the NHS at some point in their life. Often referred to as a “from cradle to grave” service, the NHS’s story is particularly poignant as told from Nye’s deathbed.

It was fascinating to learn about the life of this significant figure in Welsh history.

Credit: Johann Persson

Sharon Small shines as Jennie Lee, Bevan’s wife, who also came from a working-class background. The play briefly touches on her career as Westminster’s youngest MP and one of only five women at the time.

Sharon Small is known for her roles in “Death in Paradise,” “Midsomer Murders,” “Silent Witness,” and “Call the Midwife,” among others.

There is a bittersweet irony in Bevan’s dedication to building the NHS, which left him little time to spend with his dying father and the sister who cared for him.

You cannot help but admire Nye Bevan’s passion and determination to do what he believes is right.

For us, several standout moments mark Nye’s journey from Tredegar to Westminster. Despite a few challenging moments, it is undeniably inspiring.

  • In the play, Bevan refers to “Tredegarising” healthcare in the UK, a nod to the medical aid society in his own community that successfully provided free treatment for everyone at the point of need.
Credit: Johann Persson
  • Another standout moment was the scene with his father underground in the coal pit, where he spoke about the coal seam—understanding it, respecting it, and how an experienced miner could bring it down by striking the right spot. They could create a lasting change without needing to climb higher.
Credit: Johann Persson
  • In the library scene, the availability of books to read freely and in unlimited quantities symbolises the power of self-education. By learning about any topic of their choosing, individuals from poorer backgrounds could empower themselves to challenge the establishment and create change.

I’m uncertain whether the history of the NHS is included in any curriculum in Wales or England, but it definitely should be for those reasons alone.

Regarding the staging, the narrative centres on Nye confined to a hospital bed after a recent surgery. Tragically, it becomes clear that he’s in his final days due to a terminal diagnosis. The remarkable aspect is how they’ve animated his hallucinations, bringing the story vividly to life. Every aspect of the NHS seems intertwined with his memories, from hospital beds used as classroom props to debating chambers and beyond. This connection underscores the significance of his life experiences leading up to his vision of the NHS and universal healthcare, regardless of income.

Towards the conclusion, there’s a poignant scene where doctors, nurses, friends, and family embrace and express gratitude to Nye as he transitions to the other side. Having recently experienced the loss of my father, this moment hit very close to home and stirred uncomfortable emotions. It might serve as a gentle heads-up for others who have undergone similar experiences.

The play includes references to medical conditions and procedures and is recommended for ages 12 and up, with no admittance for children under 2, due to the inclusion of strong language.

You can attend the show at the Wales Millennium Centre from May 18th to June 1st.

Start times Monday-Saturday 7.30pm. Thursday and Saturday 2.30pm, with a running time of 2hrs 40 mins including an interval.

Tickets are still available, although some dates are limited, so be quick if you want to come along and see this incredible performance. Find out more and book tickets here.