Bridge Theatre – until 29 September 2018
Alan Bennett may fear he is a national teddy bear these days, but the crafty old bugger still has a gnarled finger on the nation’s trickier pulse points. This latest play, steered by his vicar-on-earth-Nicholas Hytner, delivers a proper theatrical punch. It does this the old-fashioned way, by lulling you into sentimental affection in a first act rich in vintage Thora-Hirdery and affectionate laughs, then slapping you round the chops with a first act close which I hope no critic will spoil (oops, just looked, two of the previews just have, though West End whingers remain innocent). And then he resolves it with a mixture of black humour and genuine pathos in the second half.
Classy. Moreover, he lards it with retro song routines, both naturalistic and fantasy, from ‘You Made Me’ to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and ‘Get Happy’, thus neatly prodding the associative nerve in anyone from, say, 50 to 110. Not to mention turning an aged-up Simon Williams into a superannuated chorus captain in striped PJs, his game if wobbly ensemble in some cases still attached to drip-stands.
It is set in the geriatric wards of a small Yorkshire community hospital, afflicted by “bed blockers” in substantial numbers because there are no care home places and families cannot or will not cope. It’s a facility which the Minister for Health plans to close (“we don’t like small, we don’t like cosy.. the state should not be seen to work”). His pet management consultant (Samuel Barnett), an escaped local lad turned nervy gay Lycraboy, is also visiting his miner Dad, a cantankerous Jeff Rawle, while a local TV crew prowls around, the puffed-up Trust chairman Salter (Peter Forbes) grandstands with statements like ‘Yesterday is the New Tomorrow’, and David Moorst does an appallingly, wickedly funny turn as a hostile and gormless work-experience porter.
But enough of the blokes: the heart and glory of the show is female. There’s Deborah Findlay’s wearily efficient nurse whose idea of success is a “dry ward” (it’s a very urinary and bowel-haunted piece) and whose demeanour hides much. But above all there is a gorgeous collection of wry or wandering old ladies: Patricia England as Mavis the ex-dancer; Julia Foster a vital driver of the plot, ex-librarian; Jacqueline Clarke the Batley Nightingale – all eight are gems in drooping cottons, the deathless Bennett lines well divided among them. They sing, they sort of dance, they reflect on life and death and sex and men. Sue Wallace’s Hazel lays siege to poor Ambrose the cultured schoolteacher as barriers of class and taste melt in the universal doom of decrepitude. And of irritatingly continuing existence: “It isn’t Death who has jaws, it’s Life.”
It’s resolution is not one to spoil, except to say that Mr Bennett has perhaps by chance hit two topical news hot-potatoes – barely a week old -even while deliberately tackling more obvious fave targets like NHS cuts and the Thatcher legacy. But the strength of the evening is that there are wider, older, inescapable themes: ageing, pathos, tenderness, moral equivalence, peristaltic progress and progress chasing, in and out of the bowel…and the indomitable spirit that dances and sings in the last gutter, because why the hell wouldn’t you?
Box office. Bridgetheatre.co.uk to 29 Sept