Brief Encounters in the NHS

“He’s alienated half the doctors in the country”


Keeley Hawes as Iris Elcock and Jack Davenport as George Blythe. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play is set just after the Second World War where a woman doctor is looking forward to the set up of the National Health Service with free health care for all.  Her husband, on the other hand, who is also a doctor is not enthusiastic about losing some of his income. 

The staging of the play is firmly in the 1940s with lounge music from that era and fashion, women with coats worn with matching felt hats awaiting the advent of Christian Dior’s New Look.  We even stray into Brief Encounter territory with Dr Iris Elcock (Keeley Hawes) gaslighted by her ghastly husband Julian Elcock (Tom Goodman-Hill), and meeting an attractive stranger George Blythe (Jack Davenport) on a train. 

Jack Davenport as George Blythe. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Cameras are wheeled in and around for the large cinema screen at the rear of the stage to show close-ups of the actors and making Michael Longhurst’s direction decidedly filmic.

There is a political agenda as Iris is involved with the Labour Party and full time agent Helen Mackeson (Siobhan Redmond).  Iris is a Labour councillor for the local authority and is due to go to a NHS rally which will see Nye Bevan (now the subject of a play at the National Theatre) launch his plan. 

It seems that many of the doctors are opposed to the NHS and Iris’s husband Julian lists off his reasons including one which might ring true today: that there will never be enough money. 

Keeley Hawes as Dr Iris Elcock. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The romantic aspect of the story has a major flaw, in as far as both participants are married, both unhappily.  I was thinking that Brief Encounter meets Jane Eyre when Jack Davenport’s character reveals the details of his marriage to a movie actress.  But there is some glamour when George buys Iris a New Look outfit of fitted white jacket and full black skirt. 

I felt the story line was weak as the history of the NHS pioneers does not sit well alongside the romance of a woman in the 1940s when divorce was very difficult to obtain unless both parties consented.

Pear Mackie and Jack Davenport as Mr and Mrs George Blythe. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

There are amazing performances here from Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport but we do wonder why Iris Elcock married the pompous Julian in the first place. Keeley Hawes has all the diffidence of a confident woman in her chosen career of medicine, but nervous of following her desires.  This is the first time I have seen her onstage in almost three decades of reviewing. Jack Davenport is heartthrob material and has done more stage work in London and New York. 

The play is well acted and well cast with Siobhan Redmond doubling in many parts of mature women, patients and friends.  However its tone is uneven and a consistent message is hard to find. 

Keeley Hawes as Iris Elcock and Jack Davenport as George Blythe. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Production Notes

The Human Body

Written by Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by Michael Longhurst



Jack Davenport

Keeley Hawes

Pearl Mackie

Siobhán Redmond

Tom Goodman-Hill

Audrey Kattan

Flora Jacoby Richardson


Director: Michael Longhurst

Designer: Fly Davies

Lighting Designer: Joshua Pharo

Sound Designer: Ben and Max Ringham

Intimacy director: Sara Green

Video/Projection Designer: 

Nathan Amaze, Joe Ransom

Fight Director: Bret Yount


Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval

Booking to 13th April 2024


Donmar Warehouse

Earlham Street

Covent Garden

London WC2H 9LX

Tube : Covent Garden


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge

at the Donmar Warehouse

 on 28th February 2024