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The Human Body Review – Keeley Hawes And The NHS In A Silver-Screen Romance

As debate on the future of the National Health Service rises in urgency week by week (notwithstanding the current junior doctors’ strike), theatre is doing the job of reminding us of all we stand to lose by going back to its beginnings.

Michael Sheen has just assumed the role of Aneurin Bevan in Nye at the National Theatre, while Lucy Kirkwood sets Bevan’s 1948 vision of “healthcare available to all free of charge” as the backdrop to this love story.

The drama pivots around a Shropshire GP and Labour party councillor, Iris Elcock (Keeley Hawes), a proto-new woman juggling the home/work balance. Her staid marriage to an injured ex-navy officer, Julian (Tom Goodman-Hill), shows its cracks after a chance meeting with George Blythe (Jack Davenport), a local man who spent the war in Hollywood. He has returned, apolitical and apathetic, it seems, until he meets Iris.

Hawes and Davenport have a potentially explosive chemistry from the moment they meet in a train carriage, while Kirkwood’s script crackles with unspoken desires, disappointments, yearning and some fantastic humour. Having recently adapted Roald Dahl’s The Witches, Kirkwood shows her range here, often deftly weaving bigger politics with the politics of Iris’s marriage and affair.

The production is, ostensibly, a paean to British film-making of the period, with references to Brief Encounter and a costume palette bleached of colour so it that looks like a film in motion. Fly Davis’s monochromatic set has a sometimes dizzying revolve and a screen capturing Iris and George’s black and white romance up close. A roving camera emerges too, along with an imposing spotlight.

There is a similar use of film and screen techniques to Jamie Lloyd’s recent Sunset Boulevard and The Picture of Dorian Gray, currently starring Sarah Snook. The effect here, under the direction of Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee, takes away from the intensity, and earnestness, of the central love story rather than adding to it.

Conceptually, the screen work is inspired – capturing the couple and their intimacies magnified. Sometimes it reaps dividends: when George tentatively reveals his feelings to Iris, we see his fingers grazing hers, and hers clasping back, on screen.

But more often it has the opposite effect: sometimes diverting us from the thrilling, physical, performances given by Hawes and Davenport, other times giving their romance a generic celluloid sentimentality. Schmaltzy film music accompanies moments of heightened passion, ironically removing us from the moment.

Hawes and Davenport are still phenomenal to watch, capturing the surprised headiness of mid-life lovers, while others in the cast (including Siobhán Redmond, Pearl Mackie and Flora Jacoby Richardson, who plays Iris’s daughter on opening night) turn actorly cartwheels, playing multiple characters.

The marital drama gathers intensity and the play works best when the camera remains off-stage. Kirkwood’s script crystallises the struggles of postwar women, newly independent, who face pushback into their old domestic roles.

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The play perhaps has too many moving parts – thematically, in its plot turns, and in the literal motion on stage. The story of the NHS sometimes fights for primacy with the romance but ultimately rises up, its message powerful. When Julian tries to dismiss Bevan’s idea as “bound to fail”, Iris corrects him: “The idea will not have failed,” she says. “We will have failed the idea.” Quite.

At Donmar Warehouse, London, until 13 April

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