“The Human Body” at Donmar Warehouse

Neil Dowden in the West End
4 March 2024

Lucy Kirkwood’s ambitious new play The Human Body packs in a great deal. Set in 1948, it’s a romantic drama that features the birth of the National Health Service, post-war progressive politics, and proto-feminism, as well as references to the British film industry, Windrush immigrants, and Christian Dior’s “New Look” fashion. Michael Longhurst and Ann Yee’s entertaining production uses live on-stage filming of the midlife lovers – played by Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport – presented in black-and-white close-ups on a screen in the style of the period. There’s a lot going on, but the story sucks you in.


Keeley Hawes and Siobhan Redmond.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Dr Iris Elcock is a hard-working GP, Labour councillor, and parliamentary private secretary to local MP Helen Mackeson in Shropshire, as well as being mother of young girl Laura and wife to fellow doctor Julian, who was wounded while serving in the Navy during the war. When she meets George Blythe, a married Hollywood movie star returning to his hometown while he shoots a film in the UK, they fall in love jeopardizing not only their families but their careers.

Dedicated to the imminent launch of the NHS, Iris encounters resistance from Julian – who like a lot of doctors at that time thought their livelihoods would be threatened – as well as from patients who don’t want her intervening in their private lives. Some also don’t like her politics – and think Churchill was betrayed – but as a socialist she has her sights on becoming an MP herself despite the patriarchal establishment.

However, with her marriage lacking passion – and her husband while supportive of her career also resentful of how much time she spends away from home – Iris is irresistibly drawn into an affair with the glamorous, amoral George, who opted out of the war by staying in America and who offers a refreshingly illicit taste of freedom. As civic duty clashes with self-fulfilment, something’s got to give.

Kirkwood may be dealing with some big themes (as she has done in plays like Chimerica, The Children, and Mosquitoes), but there is plenty of humour in The Human Body, and although it is probably slightly over-stuffed, the historical background is convincingly conveyed in inventive ways. The show starts with a Pathé News-style commentary, with Iris being interviewed as a working housewife in conventional format. Later we see her being grilled on the shortlist for prospective parliamentary candidate by a local Labour Party panel of three men whose patronizing questions show they don’t take her seriously.


Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Iris and George first meet by chance when they are returning from London to Shropshire by train, suggesting the classic romantic film Brief Encounter, which is later made into a specific homage as their intimate on-stage exchanges are simultaneously shown in monochrome on screen. This works well especially when the camera zooms in on particular details such as their hands almost touching, or certain facial reactions that the other doesn’t see. The camera operator who tracks them in these scenes doesn’t become too intrusive (unlike the multiple use of cameras in The Picture of Dorian Gray currently playing at Theatre Royal Haymarket).

The production – Longhurst’s last before stepping down as the Donmar’s artistic director after five years – is a superbly fluid staging of a technically complicated show that makes good use of a revolve to bring props on and off, while stagehands sometimes give changes of clothing to the actors. The design by Fly Davis lightly evokes the post-war period (much of the furniture being in a subdued NHS blue), while Ben and Max Ringham’s Hitchcockian score adds dramatic suspense.

Hawes and Davenport – both best known for their work on screen – have persuasive on-stage chemistry as the romantic leads. Hawes is a sympathetic, engaging Iris, committed to public health and social justice but struggling to fulfil all that is expected of her in a society where women are regarded primarily as homemakers. Iris initially takes the lead in the affair with George, played with self-deprecating charm by Davenport. George has made his name by playing rogues (and is dismissive of his latest film “Bluebeard’s Honeymoon” for Gainsborough Pictures), but in real life is not as irresponsible as he appears.

The rest of the cast all multi-role brilliantly. Tom Goodman-Hill gives real depth to his portrayal of the embittered Julian who has paid a heavy price for defending his country, while also popping up in various amusing cameos with different accents elsewhere. Siobhán Redmond is lively as the Barbara Castle-like radical MP Helen who knows how to play the game, as well as Julian’s devoted sister and George’s eccentric mother amongst others. And in an impressively diverse array of small roles Pearl Mackie plays everyone from George’s film star wife to a Caribbean nurse recently arrived to help re-build post-war Britain in the fledgling NHS.

As Iris says, in a nod to the health service’s future serious challenges, “The idea will not have failed. We will have failed the idea.”