Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The Human Body review: ‘A Socialist exploration of healthcare and romance’

I recently attended my first production at the Donmar (https://cherwell.org/2024/01/24/review-of-tennant-as-macbeth-an-auditory-experience/ – shameless self plug!) and fell in love with the energy of the space and the risks the writers and directors were taking within it. So I was excited to see that they were doing a production of one of my favourite modern playwrights, Lucy Kirkwood’s, plays: The Human Body. A British playwright who has received acclaim for many of her plays, including (my personal favourite) The Children, shows here that she is not done in her brilliance yet. Published only a few months ago (29 February 2024), The Human Body is new to the drama scene yet it definitely holds its own on the Donmar stage. 

A Socialist exploration of healthcare and romance is perhaps an unexpected way of defining a play, but this is essentially what it was. We follow Iris Elcock (played by Keeley Hawes), a practising GP, Socialist, Labour party councillor and aspiring MP, in her efforts to implement Nye Bevan’s National Health Service Act; a revolutionary change in healthcare, making it free for all. She is the exemplary post-war woman, working hard in a day job whilst maintaining a happy home with her daughter and ex-Navy husband turned GP Julian (Tom Goodman-Hill). But everything starts to change when she meets apolitical and apathetic George Blythe (Jack Davenport), a local boy who has now made it to Hollywood but is home visiting his sick mother, turning her world inside out as she is given the glimpse of “more”. 

Keeley Hawes takes on the role of Iris and embodies her completely. I was captivated by her from the beginning. I could have spent the whole play just watching her face, subtle in everything she did but emotive, powerful and strong. We see her marriage be tested, questioning whether love can survive against politics, when partners have different views. Love vs Politics being central to everything in this play. And I felt for her at many points, her down moments felt particularly poignant to me. Kirkwood keeps the story blurry but we can only assume she attempts to take her own life near the end of the play, as she cannot deal with the demands put on her both professionally and emotionally. I could have cried when she woke up in the hospital bed, or even more so ten minutes earlier when she turned away from her future with George, lying and telling him she would have never left her husband, despite just doing so in the scene prior. The dramatic irony Kirkwood employs here can only be described as heart wrenching. 

The play was undoubtedly brilliantly acted but I also have to commend Michael Longhurst (​​Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse from 2019 – 2024) for his execution of such a well written script. The set was dynamic with a circular revolve base that sped up and down throughout the production in moments of tension and calm. There were crew members holding cameras with a live feed of the action on stage projected across the back screen, fog machines, sound effects – succinctly timed to perfection – and a striking all NHS-blue set from the furniture, to the cigarettes the characters smoked, all the way down to the small blue canapes they ate at the dinner parties. This reminded me of the Old Vic production of Caryl Churchill’s A number that I saw a few years ago, with an all red set; perhaps a modern theatrical choice these female, British, playwrights have chosen to share. Thanks to Longhurst’s direction all of the scenes happened seamlessly and the actors moved around, on and off stage with ease and a certain unmistakeable elegance. I enjoyed how the live stream effect created a very cinematic feel to all of the moments between Iris and George, a fitting style to their dramatic and forbidden romance, as well as serving to emphasise how the play is about how the left tells stories, or sometimes fails to.

As concerns rise in the news now surrounding the future of the NHS, The Human Body reminds us exactly what we could be losing by putting it directly in front of our eyes on the stage. Does Iris win in the end? In some ways yes, in others no. The bill gets passed, but she turns away from her political pursuits, she gets divorced from her husband but doesn’t end up with George, and she remains a GP but with the implied new and overbearing demands a free healthcare system will present. The play is about how difficult it is to have a revolution both politically and in our personal lives, and this is emphasised by Iris at the end. The play ends with Iris centre stage, doors opened to the general public, and she projects ‘Who’s next?’ to the crowd as we cut to a final blackout. We end with both loss and a way of looking forward for Iris, and for our societal system in general. It was a play well suited to showcasing the benefits our free healthcare system offers without being overly showing-it-down-your-throat political. I look forward to what grand idea Kirkwood has in store for us next. 

The Human Body is running at the Donmar Warehouse 17 February 2024 – 13 April 2024

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles