Doing less than justice to Nye

“Sometimes Nye is his own worst enemy.”

Clement Attlee

Not while I’m alive ‘e ain’t.”
Ernest Bevin
Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan. (Photo: Johan Persson)

I went to see Nye at the National Theatre full of excited expectation, and left disappointed and deflated.

All credit to the NT for putting it on right now.  The relevance of Aneurin Bevan’s story in this election year screams through the narrative. The opening, in a busy and well-equipped hospital ward, is a graphic illustration of what he created, and our generation of politicians have failed to sustain.  Later, an angry Nye, surveying starvation caused by the 1931 version of austerity, tells the House of Commons: “When the banks are in trouble, we bail them out.”  And there’s a tremendously effective scene in a public library, graphically showing the transformative effect of this victim of modern austerity.

And I may be hyper-critical.  I have written a major biography and a play about Clem Attlee, the Prime Minster who appointed Nye to create the health service, and a short life of Nye himself. *  It might make me less tolerant than most of a dramatist’s urge to tamper with the facts for dramatic purposes.

Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan and Sharon Small as Jennie Lee (Photo: Johan Persson)

All the same, I can’t see any good dramatic reason for the utterly false picture painted of Clement Attlee, whom many historians consider to be Britain’s greatest ever Prime Minister.   Attlee (played, for no obvious dramatic reason, by a woman, Stephanie Jacob) is presented as a rather verbose, silky man.  Attlee was famously taciturn and monosyllabic, and not smooth at all. 

This Attlee is horrified at Nye’s conflict with the doctors, implores him to stop, calculates the political benefit if Nye were to fail, and withdraws support at a crucial moment.  If there was any truth at all in any of this, we would not have the NHS. Nye succeeded because Attlee took the risk of appointing him, to the horror of his senior colleagues, and then backed him to the hilt.

Cast in Nye. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, with Nye rising from his hospital bed to take part in his own story.  So he wears his pyjamas throughout, while the other characters are in correct period dress. I hated this device, because it made it harder to take Nye seriously.

But I am not sure that playwright Tim Price wanted us to take him seriously.  His Nye is a political naif, pushed forward by clever friends and a clever wife, unable to set his passions aside and calculate except when someone else shows him how.  Michael Sheen does an excellent job of portraying the Nye Bevan Tim Price has written, but there is no sense of the accomplished politician, or of the orator who could move great audiences. 

Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Things that never happened (there are many) bothered me less.  The play has Nye stealing his future wife Jennie Lee (an accomplished performance by Sharon Small) from fellow MP Frank Wise.  In fact, Lee stayed with Wise until Wise’s early and unexpected death, and only then entertained Nye’s advances. But who cares?

Performances are generally at least competent, and sometimes excellent.  Roger Evans is moving and impressive as Bevan’s old friend Archie Lush, who played a much greater part in Nye’s life than the play gives him credit for. It’s good to see Churchill portrayed without the reverential heroism of recent films, though Tony Jayawardena was not entirely convincing. Director Rufus Norris and set designer Vicki Mortimer provide settings which go some way to convincing us that this pyjama’ed buffoon really is the great Nye Bevan.

But this play does not do justice to the man and his times, and it throws away the chance to make a case for the future.

Cast in Nye. (Photo: Johan Persson)

*Clem Attlee, Labour’s Great Reformer (Haus Publishing.)

A Modest Little Man – a play (TSL Publishing)

Bevan – Creator of the NHS (Haus Publishing)

Production Notes


Written  by Tim Price

Directed by Rufus Norris



Bea Holland

Daniel Hawksford

David Monteith

Dyfan Dwyfor

Kezrena James

Lee Mengo

Matthew Bulgo

Michael Keane

Michael Sheen

Nicholas Khan

Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins

Rebecca Killick

Remy Beasley

Rhodri Meilir

Roger Evans

Sharon Small

Stephanie Jacob

Tony Jayawardena

Jon Furlong

Mali O’Donnell

Ross Foley

Mark Matthews

Ashley Mejri

Sara Otung


Director:  Rufus Norris

Set Designer: Vicki Mortimer

Costume Designer: Kinnetia Isidore

Lighting Designer: Paule Constable

Sound Designer: Donato Wharton

Composer: Will Stuart

Video/projection Designer: Jon Driscoll

Choreographer: Steve Hoggett, Jess Williams

A joint production between the National

Theatre and the Wales Millennium Centre


Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes including an interval

Booking to 11th May 2024

Then 15th May to 1st June at the Wales Millennium Centre



Olivier Theatre

National Theatre

South Bank

London SE1 9PX

Tube/Rail : Waterloo


Reviewed by Francis Beckett at the Olivier Theatre

on 7th March 2024