Nye & Jennie at The Studio/Festival Theatre Edinburgh is one of those productions that is sadly on for only two days (2 and 3 November), and that is far too short a run for not only the story of two of the great figures in British politics, but a wonderful work of theatre.
Produced by Aneurin Leisure and Theatr na nÓg, “Nye & Jennie” is a reminder to everyone that large scale productions with expensive theatrical effects and digital age technology are simply not needed to produce good theatre. This is theatre stripped backed to the basics of a small, simple but effectively staged set, lighting that is effective because of its selective usage and some very old but very well used stage exit and entrance moments. Both designer KITTY CALLISTER and lighting designer HRISTO TAKOV have done a fine job here with a very limited space to work in. For anyone that has not been in The Studio, it is a multi-purpose performance space with a seating capacity of around 200 (and it was full tonight). There is no physical raised stage and the seating starts very close to the performance area. This is what I call “no hiding place” theatre as the cast are so close to their audience there is just no room for mistakes, and in a two person production like this that is set in one fixed performance set space, it is the perfect space for theatre that requires this level of intimacy between stage and audience.
Nye & Jennie is simply theatre at its best, theatre that needs nothing else than the most basic of ingredients (a recipe so often forgotten though) for its power and effect; a good story (MEREDYDD BARKER), characters that are of real interest and have a depth to make you as an audience take an interest in them (Nye & Jennie), good direction (GEINOR STYLES), and performers with the skills to bring all of these elements to life on stage , GARETH JOHN BALE and LOUISE COLLINS.
Given the stature of the two people in our story, this production at around 75 minutes is a short story. However, the single act format works well and forces the focus onto some of the most important aspects of Aneurin (Nye) Bevan and Jennie Lee. The passion of both to want to create a society that shared more evenly in the wealth of a nation is well played here by Gareth and Louise, and a good balance is kept between their socialist values on one hand, and their often perceived “Champagne lifestyle” on the other. Driving everything in this story though is a simple, old fashioned love story, perhaps one that British politics never again witnessed. There are clear contrasts between Nye and Jennie as individuals here, and the fact that Jennie is also coping with the end of a relationship where she was the mistress is skilfully handled here. This is perhaps at times Jennie’s story more than Nye’s and we get an insight not only to the support that she gave to Nye throughout their marriage, but also the sacrifices on a professional and private level that she made. The tragedy of this love story is that, despite great speeches in public and an instinctive understanding of what the “working man” wanted, Nye often seemed to be unable to tell Jennie his thoughts for her and often failed to grasp her personal needs in their relationship. An odd picture here of a great public figure looking perhaps out of the window too often and not paying enough attention to what was happening in his own room. All of these personal elements and conflicts are handled so well by Gareth and Louise.
Nye and Jennie during their political life were loved and hated by many other important political and social figures in equal amounts, but their core principles of wanting a fairer society for all could never be doubted by anyone. From the full house at this evening’s show, people have obviously remembered and still respect that. Nye Bevan is still casting his political shadow today and the man from Tredegar is still very much an icon to many in Wales. We need to remember too though that Jennie was Scottish and came from Lochgelly. We also have a very local connection here with Jennie as she was a graduate of Edinburgh University.
Nye Bevan is of course mostly remembered now for his part in setting up the National Health Service and in so doing creating one of the great institutions of the world. It may not at the moment be a perfect institution, but those of us born under the protection of the NHS cannot imagine a world without free access to medical care. The NHS is a monument to the most basic rights of any human being.
This story could so easily have focused on Nye, but Jennie also had a spectacular political career and achieved many firsts in it (a Socialist MP before she was old enough to vote, first Minister of The Arts). The balance between the two stories here is a good one.
Like all the best stories, there are many layers to it. We touch upon many areas of politics during their lifetime and some of them major ones – the repayment to the USA for military services and aid during WWII (even the silver content in coins had to be reduced to help pay for the debt), USA interference in demanding massive defence budget increases which put a heavy burden on available funds for the newly formed NHS (did it ever really recover from this burden?), and of course cold war politics and “The Bomb”.
Nye & Jennie is a reminder that sometimes there are people in politics who want to create a better and fairer society for everyone, and this production should be a compulsory “go and watch” for all figures in contemporary politics. Hopefully a few will walk away understanding the basic principle that they are there to represent us and not their own self interests. Perhaps more than a few would leave this performance with their heads bowed in shame for their own actions.
Review by Tom King