‘By turns cynical, touching & with a rogue twinkle in its eye’: #AlanBennett’s #Allelujah @_bridgetheatre might not be vintage work from the playwright, says @nobillington, but there maintains a hard edge to his outwardly gentle comedy
Bridge Theatre, London – until 29 September 2018
If it weren’t for Alan Bennett this blog would not be what it is today. Flashback five years to an unseasonably warm September afternoon. The tour of People is playing at Curve and we, the two youngest people in the audience, meet for the first time. It’s safe to say, then, that Alan Bennett holds a special, sentimental significance for us, and last week we approached his latest offering with a not undue sense of nostalgia. While Allelujah! is by no means vintage Bennett (or Hytner, for that matter), he maintains a hard edge to his outwardly gentle comedy and shows he still has the ability to surprise.
Set in ‘The Beth’, a small hospital that treats locals ‘from birth to death’, and focal point of the community, the action takes place in the geriatric ward, which is the bane of NHS staff and officials nationwide. Elderly patients get sick. They get better. But they have nowhere to go so can’t be discharged. Thus, Bennett homes in on the ‘bed-blocking’ crisis seen in many a hospital and, rather typically, he finds the nub of the matter: an under-resourced NHS reduced to a numbers game of ‘patient turnover’.
Patients pile up in the hallways as manic doctors compete in a race for the next bed every time a death occurs in geriatrics, buttering up the matriarchal Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay) so they can get a head start on their rivals. With The Beth under threat of closure from the government, manager Salter (Peter Forbes) has hired in a film crew to record the patients’ views on the hospital, the hard-working NHS staff, and the joy that the geriatric choir gives them.
Bennett and Hytner produce touching episodes, from tentative dance routines, to pitilessly selfish families – latest arrival, the Pudsey Nightingale’s daughter and son-in-law want assurance that she’ll be kept alive only until they can fully inherit her property – to dementia-stricken Joe’s (Jeff Rawle) inability to recognise his son.
There’s a touch of gallows humour to these proceedings – eg. the Pudsey Nightingale has lost all conversational ability, except for her frequent expulsions of ‘IT’S MY HOUSE!’ at (in)opportune moments – but much of Bennett’s comedy takes the form of affectionate ribs on aging, small-town Britain, and generation gaps.
Injecting a dose of quaint fantasy, and staying on just the right side of twee, the patients partake in musical numbers ranging from ‘A, You’re Adorable’ to ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’, forming pill-popping chorus lines and fantasy lindy hops. So, we’re all set for an evening of mildly political whimsy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But Bennett throws an unexpected curveball. A shock twist at the end of the first act alters the tone of the piece, and while rather gratuitous, fits the bill from a plot perspective. The second half whizzes by, perhaps a little too fast and certain plotlines seem tacked on – Sacha Dhawan’s friendly doctor facing deportation for failing an English proficiency test feels like an afterthought (or a plot for another play). An 11th-hour speech of his featuring what should be a pertinent line – ‘Open your arms England, before it’s too late’ – feels tagged on. This is a pity considering most of Bennett’s plays ( from Forty Years On and People to Enjoy and The History Boys) all feature perceptive and original readings of England. Dhawan’s speech in Allelujah! is underwhelming by comparison. Furthermore, the aforementioned twist invokes yet another political jab (I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free!) and there’s a sense that Bennett is taking wild aim at anything and everything he can – race, sexuality, ageism, unemployment, institutionalised abuse, economic cutbacks, the ‘PC brigade’, euthanasia (to name but a few) – and the result seems unfocused and underfed. While Bennett’s other plays feature moments of lucid rhetoric that are not only insightful, but entertaining, Allelujah! fails to reach such intellectual or emotional heights. Of course I felt sympathy with the characters, but most remain two-dimensional mouth pieces.
Bennett’s most successful creations here are the proud, cantankerous, yet endearing Joe, and the no nonsense, iron-willed Sister Gilchrist. Having more to work with, Rawle and Findlay are inevitably the stand-outs among the cast. They sink their teeth into the characters and play off each other splendidly. Elsewhere, a lycra-clad Samuel Barnett has a pretty thankless role as Joe’s cold, (non)civil servant son that reluctantly returns to his hometown. Nicola Hughes makes a warm impression as the enthusiastically naïve Nurse Pinkney, while work experience teen, Andy (David Moorst) is sullen, contradictory and (it turns out) pretty nasty. The fact that this character is written and played for laughs perhaps sums up the sometimes queasy nature of Bennett’s play. I love a bit of black humour, but Allelujah! isn’t quite funny enough to pull it off. Compared with McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore – another pitch dark comedy – which we saw earlier that day, it lacks the belly laughs required to boost the drama and relieve the tension. This may sound like I’m criticising Bennett for being too Bennett (too much whimsy and too many pithy retorts masquerading as character development), but I think his style would have been better suited had he pared down the plot slightly and gotten more under the skin of his characters.
By turns cynical, touching and with a rogue twinkle in its eye, Allelujah! doesn’t set the stage alight, and as both a black comedy and state-of-the-nation play it feels underpowered, but Bennett remains a bastion of not just British playwriting, but Britain as a whole and this peculiar production will remain a curio in his oeuvre. And as in The Lady in the Van (from which the line at the top of this review particularly comes to mind), he provides much prosaic insight. What’s more, Bennett and Hytner manage to pull off that most sought-after of coups, a truly bitter-sweet ending, and rather lovely it is at that.
Allelujah! plays at the Bridge Theatre until 29th September , 2018.Deborah Findlay and Jeff Rawle in Allelujah! Credit: Manuel Harlan