Review: THE HUMAN BODY, Donmar Warehouse

Michael Longhurst's last curtain for the Donmar is a stunning new period piece by Lucy Kirkwood.

By: Feb. 28, 2024
Review: THE HUMAN BODY, Donmar Warehouse
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Review: THE HUMAN BODY, Donmar Warehouse The departing artistic director of The Donmar Warehouse is going out in a blaze of glory. A starry cast leads Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play, a period piece that, curiously, ties in perfectly with Rufus Norris’ current venture south of the river, Nye.

The further end of the 40s has Shropshire shackled by austerity. An engaged member of the Labour party, socialist GP Iris is lobbying in support of Nye Bevan’s radical fight to deliver free healthcare to Britain. Married to an ex-Navy medic turned full-time GP and mother to a young daughter who couldn’t be more different from her, she muddles her family life with her political activity. Everything changes when she meets Hollywood hotshot George Blythe.

Keeley Hawes (Line of Duty, Bodyguard) and Jack Davenport (Smash, The Morning Show) return to the theatre after extended absences in a gripping comic drama co-directed by Longhurst and his next to normal creative partner Ann Yee. A deft use of camera feeds combines with a genre-hopping and tone-shifting chameleonic script to make The Human Body a feat of movement direction. Not everybody might enjoy the ambiguity of the style and the continuous switches in mood, but its poignant performances, direct observations, and surprising comedy are ever thrilling.

Kirkwood crafts a complicated protagonist who’s stuck being a woman while her ambition beckons her. Forced to be defined by womanhood and motherhood, Iris struggles to compromise. At home, she must be an understanding and submissive wife to Julian, a horrid man who feels his physical war wounds should excuse his poor behaviour. In London, where her private sphere should be a distant thought, she keeps being asked about how she runs her household. Women need day nurseries and cooperative husbands to succeed, she says, and the material immediately gains a feminist slant. 

The cold war against her husband cools even more when a random exchange with a stranger on a train à la Brief Encounter transforms into a full-blown love affair. Constantly lit by a warm and inviting light while he attentively listens to her thoughts, George is a far cry from angry and rough Julian. It’s easy to see why Iris falls for him. Hawes and Davenport are a match made in theatre heaven. Always present on Fly Davis’s revolving stage, she gives an unforgettable, indefatigable performance. While the term is now largely overused by critics, hers truly is a tour de force.

Review: THE HUMAN BODY, Donmar Warehouse
Keeley Hawes and Jack Davenport in The Human Body

Grown up during two wars and rations, her Iris is as tough as nails. She has seen death and misery, hunger and poverty. Empathetic and steady on the political field, her spirit is stunted by a man unwilling to think of her as more than a mother to his child, resenting the fact that she has a mind of her own. In a world of stoic women and men who are averse to bending their convictions, George is not only a temporary distraction, but a saving grace too. Davenport enchants her. The occasionally dramatic score that follows him and the delicious close-ups work in favour of his intensity as he listens to her, rapt, while she regales him with her big plans or during his passionate speeches. 

The actor brings a proper film star quality to the character, adding an old-timey savoir faire to an already charismatic personality. The glamour of his universe clashes with Iris’ austere and very serious problems. Her life (and the show) becomes a romantic drama when they’re together. A steadicam meets them on stage to expand their moments of intimacy, toying further with the performative nature of the whole project and increasing the attack to our suspension of disbelief generated by the prominent role of the crew.

Review: THE HUMAN BODY, Donmar Warehouse
Pearl Mackie, Jack Davenport and Tom Goodman-Hill in The Human Body

Stagehands wheel set pieces in and help with props as per the script with a meticulously curated choreography. Spotlights are brought in mid-scene or descend with their creaking skeletal frames, phone wires are held by headphone-wearing members clad in black, while projections sometimes fill the back wall. It all chips in to impart an exciting pace and allows for a very speedy turnaround of the scenes. The quick changes and multiple-casting of the rest of the company add to the comedic angle of the play with Tom Goodman-Hill, Pearl Mackie, and Siobhán Redmond portraying characters that are best summed up as “everybody else”. 

Among their collection of figurines, Goodman-Hill is also the casually cruel husband, while Redmond is the imposing Helen Mackeson MP and Mackie jumps around even more than they do. The cast all share a specifically British way of delivering Kirkwood’s finely tuned sarcasm and sly quips, while overdramatic brushstrokes spice up the journey to the NHS as we know it today. The result is camp seriousness. Part black comedy, part melodrama, part political commentary, and part feminist critique, The Human Body is tied together with a visually vain ribbon and almost has the feeling of something that shouldn’t entirely work but weirdly excels at this quirky blend.

Review: THE HUMAN BODY, Donmar Warehouse
Keeley Hawes in The Human Body

Though it’s a bit on the longer side, it’s uniformly engrossing and doesn’t feature any lulls or fillers. It’s a fascinating production from every viewpoint: Joshua Pharo’s in-your-face lighting, Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom’s video design, Ben and Max Ringham’s compositions, each aspect joins in harmony to deliver a compelling and thoroughly riveting product. Like most of what the Donmar has been producing lately, this is a show to see.

The Human Body runs at The Donmar Warehouse until 13 April.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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