The Human Body at Donmar Warehouse review: Keeley Hawes is luminous on her return to the stage

Keeley Hawes in The Human Body (PR Handout/Marc Brenner)
Keeley Hawes in The Human Body (PR Handout/Marc Brenner)
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Keeley Hawes makes an impressive return to live theatre in Lucy Kirkwood’s muddled drama set in 1948, which splices the creation of the NHS together with a black-and-white British postwar film romance.

A primetime TV favourite for three decades in Spooks, Line of Duty and The Durrells, Hawes shines here in an altruistic role that could be insipid. And she has a worthy foil in Jack Davenport, playing a wittily jaded movie star. Though I kind of loved the play’s mix of stridency and scattiness, and the way it juxtaposes theatrical and cinematic action, it’s overstuffed, overlong and unfocused.

Our heroine is Iris Elcock, a pioneering female Shropshire doctor, Labour councillor and would-be MP. She fights prejudice daily, at work and at home. Her once-supportive GP husband Julian (Tom Goodman-Hill), badly wounded in the war, has cooled on her politically and sexually. Iris also manages the household and their young daughter, who is more interested in Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress than in equality.

Still, Iris soldiers brightly on towards the brave new socialist dawn until she is blindsided by George Blythe, a local boy who made a career (and avoided the war) playing handsome cads in Hollywood. Their flirtation is filmed by circling cameras and projected in lustrous monochrome on screens. Though the play acknowledges its heavy debt to Brief Encounter, one of the most pleasing things about it is the immediate, easy, sensual spark between two attractive, careworn, middle-aged characters.

Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport (PR Handout/Marc Brenner)
Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport (PR Handout/Marc Brenner)

Kirkwood supplies them with spry banter and keeps Iris’s speeches just the right side of preachy. Goodman-Hill, Siobhán Redmond and Pearl Mackie augment the central performances with cameos that range from the deft to the demented.

The production, by Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee, is engrossing but meandering. Designer Fly Davis dresses the cast predominantly in shades of grey against a powder-blue set, suggesting ration-book drabness and also cinematic artifice. Props are handed over by a polished and visible stage management team – the must-have, along with slick video, for fashionable West End shows from Sunset Boulevard to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Kirkwood reminds us how bad things were for the British working class before the welfare state: and that doctors and Churchill’s Tories initially voted against an NHS. Hers is one of several plays appearing this year that presumably began life in the crucible of the pandemic. It’s therefore full of foreshadowing and bathos.

And ultimately it gets lost between conflicting demands: to celebrate feminist pioneers and heroic medics; to coo over postwar British cinema; and to interrogate the myth of national unity in wartime.

But Davenport is very funny in it and Hawes is superb. She has the ability to fit her face and body language to the period of any story, and she is luminous here, both IRL and onscreen. It’s a triumph in, and over, the material.

To 13 April,