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The Human Body (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: The Human Body

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: DONMAR Warehouse. 41 Earlham StREET, London WC2H 9LX

Credits: By Lucy Kirkwood

The Human Body

3 stars

PHOTO: Marc Brenner

The war has ended and the Welfare State, particularly the NHS is moving centre stage. Dr Iris Elcock (Keely Hawes) is so passionate about equality and justice that she is pushing hard against people who preferred the status quo. Thus she is a Labour party local councillor and inching towards standing for Parliament. Then her home life and meeting an actor names George Blythe (Jack Davenport) complicate things.

First the positives: Hawes combines wide-eyed surprise with the gentle competence of a post-war professional woman kicking against the traces and there’s a lot of rueful humour – and passion of a different sort. Davenport is every inch the dishy, charismatic outsider and when we finally meet the secret in his closet (think Jane Eyre) he brings finds real depth and anguish. The two leads work well and convincingly together. Three other actors – Tom Goodman-Hill, Pearl Mackie and Siobahn Redmond – play everything else in lots of wigs, hats and voices. Dialect coaches Penny Dyer and Hazel Holder have done an excellent job. There’s a child in the cast too. Flora Jacoby Richardson, who shares the role with Audrey Kattan, was engaging on press night and got a lot of laughs.

But the play is not just a political investigation into the birth of Welfare Britain. it is also a response to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) even down to the tone of Hawes’s voice. Much of the interaction between her and Davenport is filmed by black clad stage operatives and projected in black and white onto a back screen. There’s even some Rachmaninov in Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design just in case you’ve missed the point.  And all the time this is going on, the revolve – if you’ve got it, flaunt it? – is slowly moving usually with the camera man on board as well as the action. It all gets wearisome and makes the play feel bittily unsure of what it’s trying to do. It seems to be trying to fire on too many cylinders at once and would have been better for at least 30 minutes cut from its self-indulgent two and three quarter hour length.

Because all the action takes place on the revolve props – phones, clothes, walking sticks etc –  are brought by crew to the edge of it for cast members to take and that works quite neatly.

This is the second West End play I’ve seen in a week which uses drama to force a lengthy, left wing, impassioned, standalone rhetoric on its captive audience (The other was The Enemy of the People at Duke of York’s). I suppose it provides good monologue material for future drama school showcases but in context it feels very bolted on.

The Human Body is a play with potential but it needs to be much more focused on what it wants to say or do.


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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