The Bridge Theatre
Dates: 11 Jul -29 Sept 2018
Alleujah | Review
It’s not particularly easy to define Allelujah! It is not a comedy, nor is it a dark drama, it isn’t a factual, searing piece of verbatim work, and it’s certainly not a musical despite featuring several musical pieces throughout. It is all of these things and none to them at the same time. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, Allelujah! marks the return of Alan Bennett after six years, his debut at the Bridge, and his tenth collaboration with Nicholas Hynter. Like many of the quintessential Bennett plays, Allelujah! holds its own – a mix of all genres (like all good Bennett plays) it manages to be both laugh out loud funny, heart rending and shocking, usually within the same scene. Allelujah! tells the tale of the Beth, a ‘cradle-to-grave hospital’ on the edges of the Pennines which is faced with closure as part of an NHS efficiency drive, and the residents who consider the place home. And given that this year marks the 70th birthday of the NHS, it couldn’t be more timely
Not that it is simply a fluff puff piece designed to stroke the ego of the Health Minister, Allelujah! is a play laced with anger and fury and made up with some wonderful, touching performances. The 25 strong cast (the majority of whom are over the age of 50) features such stalwarts as Jeff Rawle, Gwen Taylor and Julia Foster who bring to life the residents of the Beth. As the cantankerous Joe, Jeff Rawle raises many a giggle, with his inappropriate comments and his barely disguised loathing of most of the people around him, he is bested for one-liners by Simon Williams as Ambrose, who spends most of the time trying to get away from the other women on the ward, and bonds with Dr Valentine. The women are equally as funny, with Gwen Taylor playing Lucille with a knowing filthiness, a wink and a chuckle the whole time and Julia Foster playing the shy but knowledgeable Mary, quietly documenting the darker sides to hospital life. The chemistry between all the actors on stage is understated, but grounded in reality, and listening to some of the conversations between the residents, I was immediately reminded quite how good an ear Bennett has for those small, run-of-the-mile moments in life.
Not that the residents are the only stars of the show, Deborah Findlay as the steely and ruthlessly efficient Sister Gilchrist is wonderful – perhaps wonderful is the wrong word as to all intents and purposes she is the closest to a villain that the play has, but even in her darkest moments, Bennett has gifted her with monologues and moments where Sister Gilcrest – or Alma as she allows Doctor Valentine to call her in a sweet woman, is fleshed out, a woman who we simultaneously fear and pity. An undereducated woman who simply fell into nursing through little choice, I do wonder if NHS nurses will recognise some of her bitter jadedness about the entire thing, as she comments towards the end of the play: she is a nurse, a woman, and no one notices her. Her foil as it were, is Dr Valentine, the immigrant doctor played with touching understatedness by Sacha Dhawan. Immediately questioned because he likes the elderly (“nobody likes old people. Old people don’t like old people”), and with the constant threat of his immigration status hanging over his head, Dhawan plays the doctor with warmth and truthfulness. A later scene where Dhawan performs Land of Hope and Glory for immigration lawyers feels a little too close to truth, and his closing monologue, which is essentially Bennett just screaming at us to be more open minded, is told with a resigned sadness that lands heavily, even as the beginning bars of “get happy” wind up in the background. There are comic turns from Samuel Barnett, as Colin, the son of Joe, and a slimy management consultant who works with the Department of Health and from Peter Forbes as Salter, the chairman of the hospital. Both roles are less nuanced, and a lot heavier handed, but no less entertaining. I would have liked to have seen more emotion from Barnett though, who whilst wonderful as a slimy consultant, didn’t always convince as a grieving son.
So far so good, and in fairness Allelujah! is a good play…it’s just not as good as some of Bennett’s other work. It’s unfair perhaps to hold Allelujah! up against The History Boys, but whereas The History Boys managed to deal with topical issues in a subtle, nuanced way, Allelujah! risks becoming a little too heavy with it’s state of nation topic. For one, there are simply too many characters; it’s impossible to fully flesh out 25 characters in two and a half hours, and so many of them simply become cyphers for an idea or a stereotype. The other problem with writing a polemic piece is that there are moments which feel a little tick boxy, and a little heavy handed. Some jokes which don’t work quite as well, and in general there is a feeling that the writing just isn’t quite as sharp, but as standalone play, Allelujah! is quite something. Death looms large just over the page, but it does not feel unwelcome. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given the play is set in a geriatric ward of a hospital, but the discussions of death are sensitively done, loaded with those Bennett-isms to soften the sharp edges. The musical additions are heart-warming, and I’ll admit a little surprising (some of them can seriously move) but didn’t feel necessary. A nice addition yes, and certainly humorous, but they felt more than anything just a reason to put Arlene Phillips’ name in the programme, as opposed to intrinsic to the plot.
As a love letter to the NHS it’s quite something; holding up a mirror to both the beauty and the flaws of a system that most of the British public hold dear to their hearts. Witty, sharp and very aware of the fears that most of us have of aging, Bennett also revels in the wonder of getting old, as well as taking pot shots at the Health Ministers. Yes, it’s not always subtle, but it is funny, heart-warming and truthful, and it feels very…Bennett-y. And what more could you ask for?
Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another six years for his next piece.
Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nicholas Hynter
Choreographer: Arlene Phillips
Cast: Samuel Barnett, Sam Bond, Jacqueline Chan, Jacqueline Clarke, Sacha Dhawan, Rosie Ede, Patricia England, Deborah Findlay, Peter Forbes, Julia Foster, Manish Gandhi, Colin Haigh, Richie Hart, Nadine Higgin, Nicola Hughes, Anna Lindup, Louis Mahoney, David Moorst, Jeff Rawle, Cleo Sylvestre, Gwen Taylor, Sue Wallace, Simon Williams, Duncan Wisbey, Gary Wood