Nye Michael Sheen

‘Look what we built’ – a GP reflects on a new play about Nye Bevan

Health & Society
Sassa Calthrop-Owen

The National Theatre’s ‘Nye’ is a moving insight into the creation of the NHS, writes GP Sassa Calthrop-Owen.

‘Did I look after everyone?’

Michael Sheen’s last words as a dying Aneurin Bevan in his NHS hospital bed.

The bed features pretty heavily in Nye. As do the curtains. In Rufus Norris’s surreal and exuberant production, with Vicky Mortimer’s clever set design, the ward becomes furniture and backdrop in a fever-dream of the life of Nye Bevan and the formation of the NHS. Tim Price uses a little artistic licence here, as Bevan actually died at home some five months after the surgery that revealed his stomach cancer; but the device works. ‘The morphine’s doing its trick.’

Nye in his post-op, drug-fuelled delirium wanders in permanently bewildered pyjamas, as beds become a classroom, a library, a podium, even the ‘Aye’ and ‘No’ lobbies. Curtains are the House of Commons benches, and the backdrop for projections – X-rays, ECGs, even the serried rows of furious doctors.

His surgeon becomes Winston Churchill (an imposing Tony Jayawardena), Matron becomes Clement Attlee (Stephanie Jacob in a bald wig driving a motorised desk with remarkable gravitas), and a nurse in full regalia serves gin and tonic on the Commons’ balcony while he romances his wife-to-be (Jenny Lee, a formidable politician in her own right, perfectly played by Sharon Small).

Michael Sheen and members of the cast during rehearsals (photo, Johan Persson)

Sheen is, of course, a brilliant Bevan. Charismatic, charming, passionate, vulnerable, full of mischief and machinations. Very funny. ‘You can’t get whisky on the NHS.’ ‘Well, that was a bloody oversight!’

A large cast brings the production to glorious life, even breaking into a song and dance routine (‘Get happy’, bizarrely perfect). And they keep our attention through the complex and sometimes choppy narrative – ‘my whole life was jumbled up’.

Down the mine at 13, Bevan discovers libraries, overcomes his stammer, educates himself, and never loses his fury at inequality and suffering. His father dies in his arms of Black Lung (miners’ pneumoconiosis). There are people unable to afford anaesthetic for their surgery, cockroaches in the hospitals, outbreaks of measles and rubella and diphtheria, no ambulances, no penicillin, one service for the rich and another for the poor. ‘Only in the dark can you see what your life is really about,’ his father tells him, deep in the pit.

He clashes with Churchill and fights his own party. He is hated in wartime opposition. No-one is more surprised than he when Attlee makes him minister of health (and, Attlee insists, housing). ‘You kicked me out of the party once. We don’t really speak!’

For those of us at the coalface of the NHS, it’s easy to lose sight of what a huge and slightly miraculous achievement the whole thing is.

Sassa Calthrop-Owen

Getting the bill over the line, he fights his greatest opponents – the medical profession, possibly not in our finest hour – as they oppose nationalisation of their livelihoods right down to the wire. Amid threats of strikes and boycotts, he obstinately sets the date, and a tense three-month countdown sees concession after concession – GPs to keep their independence, consultants their private practices. But he gets it through. And on 5 July 1948, the NHS comes into being. Universal, comprehensive, free at the point of need.

At the very end, as the cast leaves the stage, Michael Sheen pauses and looks up. Projected across the NHS curtain is this: ‘Within 10 years of the creation of the NHS, infant mortality decreased by 50%. Since its founding, life expectancy has increased by 12 years. Every day, 1.3 million people are treated, based on clinical need, not the ability to pay.’

Did he look after everyone? It's not often I feel pride in my work these days; for those of us at the coalface of the NHS, it’s easy to lose sight of what a huge and slightly miraculous achievement the whole thing is. And Bevan never had any illusions – ‘expectation must always exceed capacity; it must always appear imperfect’.

But there’s a moment at the very start of the play when a post-op Bevan is wheeled in his bed onto the serene Nightingale ward, and in his scared and confused state he’s comforted: ‘Look what we built!’

Sassa Calthrop-Owen is a GP in London

Nye is at the National Theatre in London until 11 May, then the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff from 18 May until 1 June, and in selected cinemas on 23 April. Find out more

Read an interview with Sara Otung, a doctor who acts in the play