By Charlie Kimber
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2896

Nye—An exciting tale of the NHS’s founder

Aneurin Bevan was Labour's health secretary during the creation of the NHS
Issue 2896
Students rally to the defence of Nye Bevan as detailed in this review of the play Nye

Students rally to the defence of Nye Bevan

Nye is a pulsating 130 minutes of theatre built around the story of left Labour hero Aneurin Bevan. Bevan—miner, union activist and eventually MP and cabinet minister—is best known as the man in charge during the birth of the NHS in 1948. The play shows Bevan’s roots in the brutal conditions of industrial south Wales.

There’s a wonderful “I am Spartacus” classroom rebellion where nearly all the students—inevitably there’s one scab—unite against a teacher caning the young Nye for stammering. We see Bevan educate himself at the library and through Marxist reading groups. He applies himself to the rules of the local welfare bodies and the council committees so he and his comrades can take them over.

He climbs up the Labour hierarchy. But at home there’s his father who is coming to a tortured, choking death from black lung—miner’s pneumoconiosis. Kerenza James gives a powerful performance as Bevan’s sister Arianwen—loving, bitter and resentful that Aneurin is too busy and too scared to do his share of caring for their father.

We see Nye arrive in the Commons and deliver his scathing attacks on the Tories. It’s still thrilling to hear someone confront them as the class enemy. I was deeply disappointed that the play doesn’t give Sheen the chance to say one of Bevan’s most famous quotes—“No amount of cajolery and no attempts at ethical or social seduction can eradicate from my heart deep burning hatred for the Tory party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.” 

The play skates over the way Labourism blunted and then captured Bevan. But there is one scene in which Winston Churchill—who Bevan courageously criticised during the Second World War—ultimately wins him over to “national unity”. And then we see Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, superbly played by Stephanie Jacob, glide around the stage behind a motorised desk hoovering up any leftist dissent like a Starmerite Davros.

Two missing elements would have deepened the drama. One is Bevan’s relationship with Jennie Lee, who became his wife. Lee, a brilliant left wing MP in her own right, is played well by Sharon Small. She describes her relegation to someone who puts Bevan’s food on the table and makes sure he has clean underwear.

But she was more interesting than that. Lee broke from Labour with the left wing Independent Labour Party in 1932 and Bevan denounced her angrily. “You will not influence the course of British politics by as touch as a hair’s breadth. Why don’t you get into a nunnery and he done with it? I tell you it’s the Labour Party or nothing,” he said. That tension, only hinted at, could have deepened their interaction.

And in dozens of his speeches Bevan explained how he had always been chasing power. First it seemed he had win election to the union committee, then to the district council, then to the county council, then to parliament and finally to the cabinet. Each time, just as he reached the coveted position, “I saw power’s coattails disappearing round the corner.” He meant the story semi-humorously, but it summed up his life.

Artistically you can’t understand how he went from the teenage activist to the man who justified Labour banning demonstrations and fronting up for Britain having nuclear weapons without it. As it is, the play shows Bevan as a sort of successful version of Neil Kinnock—if you can imagine that—or what supposedly Jeremy Corbyn might have been. Some critics found the play over-long or too earnest. I found it neither and Socialist Worker readers will find it hugely enjoyable. 

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance
One-off