Theatre review: Nye

A man looking at the camera, with 'Nye' appearing over him
Photo courtesy of Rachel Louise Brown

STAMMA's Catherine Woolley shares her thoughts on the play Nye, all about the politician Aneurin ('Nye') Bevan, which is showing at the Millennium Theatre Cardiff from Saturday, and in cinemas across the UK now.

"I'm going to look after you," Nye promises his dying father. "I'm going to look after them all".

It's hard for me not to be biased about I, a play about the late labour politician Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, written by Tim Price and directed by Rufus Norris in a co-production between the National Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre. For not only was Nye a person who stammers and who founded the NHS, for which I've worked for nearly ten years, but my family hail from the very same mining town in South Wales that he did (in fact, my great grandmother was friends with his sister!). But even without such a personal connection, it's hard not to see the celebration sitting beneath its surface.

The play opens with Nye Bevan (played by Michael Sheen) lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by an NHS he fought so hard to build. But what turned Nye from politician to patient? And how did one man create such a powerful legacy? Over the next two and half hours, that's what the play sets out to explain.

Watch a trailer below. Review continues underneath...

The show explores Nye's recollections and memories as part of his post-operation hallucinations, jumping imaginatively backward and forward in time chronologically but with a hint of the surreal. My personal favourite is a beautiful scene where Nye descends into a mine alongside his Da (Rhodri Meilir).

We follow Nye's childhood from a schoolboy in the Welsh valleys to trade union activist and ultimately to Parliament. He is a man constantly seeking the next challenge, and who cannot stop for anything or anyone. There is a bittersweet irony that working so hard to build the NHS gives him precious little time to spend with his dying father and the sister he left caring for him.

Review continues below...

A man in pyjamas walking through a theatre set
Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan (courtesy of Rachel Louise Brown)

Michael Sheen gives a star performance, bringing a gentle warmth and vulnerability, as well as Nye's fiery determination, to the role. Some of the show's earliest scenes show Nye at school, bullied by his teacher for stammering while reciting poetry. Later, a young Nye is introduced to Tredegar Workman's Institute Library, where he is enthralled by having all this learning at his fingertips for free (no wonder he's equally passionate about free healthcare for all!).

His first thought turns to using the library books as an escape and learning new words to avoid his stammer. It would be easy for Nye to slip into the mindset that stammering is traumatic, and Nye's determination to avoid it only natural. But stammering never stops Nye from standing up for what he thinks is right, whether it's defending another child in the classroom or causing chaos in Parliament. While as a child Nye hopes to hide his stammer, later he stammers openly, not just with his wife and friends, but when speaking to the world with his powerful orations.

...stammering never stops Nye from standing up for what he thinks is right

"I had no idea until I saw the play 'Nye' that Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS, had a childhood stammer. The play showed how the stammer, as well as causing him tremendous difficulties and leading him to be bullied by a teacher, was a great motivator. It was one of the reasons he was determined to become an orator who achieved so much in his life." 
(Margaret Rooke, author of You Can Change the World, who emailed to tell us this after seeing the play.)   

The classroom scene, instead of leaving Nye shamed and belittled for stammering, becomes a message of the power of collective action. Nye may be the only child in the classroom who stammers, but he's not alone. He doesn't give up or allow others to fight for him, and by standing together with his stammering allies, we see how a united group can change the world for the better – ideas that will guide Nye's adult life.

At times it feels like the show tries to tell too much. By covering the entirety of Nye's life it struggles to give depth to some of the specific events that define his legacy. This determination to show so much leaves some characters feeling sidelined in favour of plot. It would have been great to see more from Bevan's fascinating wife, fellow MP Jennie Lee (Sharon Small), who states her career was overshadowed by Nye – but still spends most of her stage-time nursing him in bed.

For a show chronicling the life of the NHS's founder, it would have been great to have spent more time understanding the challenges that came with creating such a radical new institution – and the long-term impact of Nye's promises that doctors' pay will never be compromised on.

It seems only fitting that Nye is the National Theatre's 100th show to be screened in cinemas across the UK as part of its National Theatre Live programme. Much as Nye dreamed of healthcare for all, no matter where they live, Nye helps to realise the National Theatre's dream of being for the whole of the UK rather than just those in London.

Nye puts a person who stammers centre stage, not to mock or laugh at, but as someone to aspire to. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his politics or his principles, you cannot help but come away admiring Nye Bevan's fiery passion and determination to do what he believes is right. 

Following its successful run in the National Theatre in London, Nye will be showing at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, on the 18th May to 1st June 2024 (visit their website for tickets), and it is showing in selected cinemas across the UK now. 

Catherine is the STAMMA Programme Lead for Children & Families.

Tell us what you think! 

If you're going to see Nye, or if you've seen it already, we'd love to hear your views. Email us at 

Pattie Jenkins emailed us to give her thoughts on the play:

"My husband and I had the privilege of attending the performance of Nye in Cardiff last night, and we were profoundly moved and inspired by the experience. The play captivated us from start to finish with its powerful execution. One particularly striking scene depicted Nye and his school friends facing a bullying teacher, perfectly capturing how children perceive intimidating authority figures. The teacher's towering presence and the use of giant canes brilliantly illustrated his dominance over the vulnerable children, who found strength in their unity.

'The acting in Nye was exceptional across the board, but Michael Sheen's passion for the subject was especially palpable in every line he delivered. He took our breath away. The conclusion was especially moving, bringing us both to tears — a fittingly powerful end to a play about such an exceptional and charismatic man."

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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