Paul T Davies reviews Alan Bennett’s new play Allelujah! now playing at the Bridge Theatre.
The Bridge Theatre
19 July 2018
I need to get it off my chest straight away that Allelujah is a little bit of a mess. But it’s an Alan Bennett mess therefore it is infinitely more successful than most playwright’s best. He always delivers his trademarks; pithy, Northern one liners, a world where a vanilla slice can get a huge laugh, and a sustained criticism and attack on policies that have eroded England and the English identity. The play is set in The Beth, a cradle to grave hospital, the kind no longer favoured by the Ministry of Health, fighting for survival and the daily struggle to find beds on the Dusty Springfield Geriatric Ward, Dr. Valentine does his best and is immensely kind and understanding, whereas Sister Gilchrist has a more practical approach, her advice about the elderly is “Don’t wait too long to die.” There is a documentary crew filming the ward as part of the campaign to keep it open, and the arrival and death of Mrs. Maudsley, aka Pudsey Nightingale, throws the play into a sharp, very topical, focus.
The problem is there are too many characters, and I yearned for time to get to know fewer of them more. In particular, the relationship between Joe, a wonderful performance by Jeff Rawle, an ex miner suffering from lung disease, and his son Colin, (Samuel Barnett in fine form), a civil servant working for the Health minister and wanting the hospital closed, needs further expanding and would provide an even stronger base between Thatcherite ideology and the reality of care needs. It also explores the ongoing dilemma of wanting and supporting your children in having a better life than you, then yearning for them to return. Sacha Dhawan is a beautifully warm, kind, Dr. Valentine, facing deportation as a result of a problem with his visa, desperate to save the hospital, whose kindness proves his downfall. Deborah Findlay is a perfect Sister Gilchrist, down to earth and outspoken, but then revealing her sinister side in a wonderful revelation just before the interval. Among the patients, Gwen Taylor is a hilarious “flighty piece” Lucille, and, best of all, Simon Williams almost steals the whole show as grumpy Ambrose, fighting off the attentions of Hazel, and breaking your heart as he constantly waits for a visitor that never turns up. Thanks to the inspired inclusion of the poem Ten Types of Hospital Visitor, he, and the audience, is aware that there is only one visitor left to call for these patients.
A joyful aspect of the production is that the group have formed a choir to sing at a concert to save the ward, and the dancing, (superb choreography by Arlene Phillips), and singing not only provides effective transitions between each scene, it also shows the inner lives and past happiness of the patients, and it is wonderful to see a cast of older actors owning that stage. The upbeat curtain call may dilute the message somewhat, but there are so many beautifully poignant moments that will stay with me. However, there is a work experience lad, Andy, who is, almost as matter of course, thick, working class and mean. I’m fed up of young people being presented this way, and it’s a major bugbear, even though his meanness is important for plot development.
Nicholas Hytner’s production feels, in places, like a work in progress, and the first half still needs shaping. But Bob Crowley’s excellent design keeps the action flowing smoothly, and the play is at its best when the fourth wall is broken and the style less realistic. Above all, Bennett also trains his beady eye on all of us. “If people love their parents so much, why do they put them away and not visit?” asks Sister Gilchrist. Having lost my mother to dementia last year, the play affected me on many emotional levels. Ultimately, that’s why I love Bennett, and why I would encourage you to catch this play and wonderful cast.