Nye and Jennie: a working class tale of life, labour and love, Theatr na nÓg

What a challenge – to write a play about an iconic political couple, Nye Bevan and Jennie Lee. The biopic drama is a popular medium of our time but very difficult to do well. And in this case, to fuse, balance or blend the central political core of their relationship with a love story – with all its conflicts and contradictions- even more difficult. The author, Meredydd Barker, was shortlisted for the Best Playwright in the English Language award for the Wales Theatre Awards. for the play, directed by Geinor Styles, which is on tour by Theatr na nÓg.

The play began with Jennie the widow, alone on stage, and then took us back  through a long and complex political time span covering the 1930’s to 1960 when Nye died of cancer. Nye became a so-called hero of the left and Jennie later became Minister of Arts and helped to set up the Open University.  Their relationship within this historical context went from comrades to  marriage , and then  to a love story in their later years. It was a huge task to select and distil the key elements of this history. Growing up in a household that revered Nye and Jennie, I knew enough of the history to follow most of the story, as did most of the audience in Llanelli from what I could tell. But some  points might have been more difficult for someone less familiar with the history to follow – for example, the role of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) in the  struggles of the left and Labour at the time; or why or what Jennie was doing working for Lord Beaverbrook during the war. The outline of the love story was there and there were some dramatic moments – such as Jennie’s post marriage declaration of love for Nye – but for me, the politics tended to overwhelm the intriguing personal relationship.

The piece was devised as a two-hander which places huge demands on the actors. Gareth John Bale as Nye made a dramatic first entrance, striding through the audience with voice at full boom. He maintained a commanding presence throughout . His performance was believable , capturing something of the essence of Nye without seeking to imitate. Louise Collins’ Jennie was less strong I feel. Her first appearance as the widow, hunched and grieving, was touching. But presenting the younger Jennie with a similar stoop and a variable Scottish accent took away from the chance to display the charisma and impact she must have had over Nye and others during her life.

The staging of the play was simple but effective – a basic living room with evidence of lots of papers, documents and books. Nods to their alleged “champagne socialist” lifestyle were made not through the set but by references to visits to places such as the Cafe Royal (where Nye proposed marriage to Jennie). Costumes were appropriate and simple- Nye in a slightly dishevelled suit and Jennie smartly dressed and coiffed. The scenes were cleverly broken up at times with music and also , interestingly, with dance. Moments of tenderness between the couple were revealed in the dance interludes- the first tango dance was particularly effective and touching. The lighting worked well – even  to the stars at the end reflecting Nye’s references in the play to the stars above the mountains.

There was a good audience at the Ffwrnes in Llanelli, engaged and appreciative. There is clearly an interest in experiencing this kind of subject matter through drama. Overall it was an interesting and enjoyable evening. My reservations are perhaps partly to do with the text and partly to do with the performance. For me there was insufficient light and shade , something that keeps the audience involved. It operated very much on one tone, the tone of political ideas and debate- clearly an essential element to the play but the play was also about a relationship, a love story that needed to be explored  with more depth and subtlety. The moments of intimacy between Nye and Jennie brought light and insight – the dances, the declaration of her love, her protectiveness of him – and left me wanting to see more of that side of their relationship .

Clearly Nye’s dominance in the relationship and his political success – including famously founding the NHS- had to be fully reflected in the piece. And Jennie chose to downplay her ambitions during the marriage in order to support him. Having said that her “sacrificial” role and, importantly, her difficulties with it could have been brought out throughout the play, rather than just in a short scene towards the end. There needed to be more of a balance between the political and the personal elements in the story, and between Nye and Jennie as characters. The imbalance between the actors’ performances did not help to overcome these limitations.

Nevertheless, to repeat , it was an interesting and relevant piece of live drama that was rightly well received on the night.

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