Bridge Theatre, London – until 29 September 2018
“Good morning, Matron, and whom do we have here?”
“Good morning, Dr Tinkle – this is Mr Bennett, he’s suffering from chronic sentimentality with complications of mawkishness and false nostalgia.”
“I see. And where do you suggest we send him?”
And there, in a spoof clip from Carry On, Matron, you have the nub of everything that’s wrong with Alan Bennett’s latest and potentially last play, Allelujah! Ironically, it’s about saving a building from closure but may actually be the Bridge Theatre’s first popular and commercial success.
An older northern hospital is facing the possible transfer of its geriatric unit to a modern purpose-built site. Its wards house long-term octogenarians, sometimes referred to as bed-blockers. Bennett’s most ingenious ruse is to make the longest-serving nurse a sort of Harold Shipman in black stockings who ‘helps’ the serially incontinent to pass in the night. This dark core is the best thing in what can otherwise be a production dangerously close to the ‘Best Marigold Hotel’ genre in which feisty old dames defy the grim reaper with wisecracks and gin.
There are some very well-observed performances: Simon Williams (you can practically hear the Upstairs, Downstairs theme in your head when he’s wheeled on) excellent as a meticulous schoolmaster brought low by arthritis, the glamorous Julia Foster almost unrecognisable as a watchful grandma, and Gwen Taylor only slightly too broadly playing the most vociferous of the complainants. Jeff Rawle’s ex-miner looks quite scarily like Michael Foot with Jeremy Corbin’s beard, but he is one of the most credible characters. Deborah Findlay is consistently superb as Sister Gilchrist whose plan to keep beds available is so sinister.
Unfortunately everything about this, the tenth Bennett/Hytner collaboration, feels recycled: from the flat-vowelled jokes – I didn’t actually hear the words ‘custard cream’ but every other reference seems familiar – to the hollow anti-Thatcher rhetoric of Rawle’s miner, the hymns more ancient than modern sung by the patients’ choir, and the repurposing of two History Boys to play the walking clichés of mouthpiece Indian doctor and gay management consultant.
I am fully content to hail Alan Bennett as a National Treasure – although I think his Treasurehood is reinforced by John Culshaw’s excellent impression on Dead Ringers – and while I enjoyed many aspects of Allelujah!, I still hoped for even better and a return to his form in, say, The Madness of George III.
As a political work, it’s unlikely to have the impact or longevity of Peter Nicholls’ 1969 state of the nation piece The National Health, and with a cast of 25 it could prove expensive to transfer.
But with so many roles for older women, it is Bennett’s lasting gift to amateur dramatic societies up and down the country.
until 29 September