Bridge Theatre, 12th September 2018
Yet again by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing a major London premiere and, worst still given his feckless nature, comments on it, it is as good as over. Mind you the good news is that, as far as I can see, Allelujah was an unqualified success for the Bridge Theatre, playing to full(ish) houses which can only be a good thing. Nick Hytner, the Bridge AD and director here, and Alan Bennett go back a long way. If there was one thing guaranteed to get bums on those plush, comfy(ish) Bridge seats then this was it. Hopefully more people get to see just how marvellous this new theatre is and will return for whatever comes next. If they have any sense at all they will sign up for A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, the new Martin McDonagh play, which opens here in a couple of weeks.
Now I am not sure there is, maybe bar Queen Liz II, a person more qualified to take on the National Treasure mantle than Alan Bennett. You know pretty much exactly what you are going to get when Mr Bennett puts pen to paper. If you love his wry, quizzical artistic voice, then you were never going to be disappointed by this. And plainly there is a pretty wide demographic who do love that voice. But that voice does come with some drawbacks, a few of which were on show in Allelujah. He can be, dare I say it, just that teeniest bit lazy when it comes to getting a laugh. (Mind you any image of louche behaviour in Yorkshire towns is pretty funny I guess). His characters have aged with him and he can veer towards the stereotypical. Overt nostalgia and sentimentality can seep into the text. He doesn’t really go in for plot, preferring to stitch together episodes to tell his story. All in all then sometimes Alan Bennett can be a bit too Alan Bennett.
Yet slowly and surely, underneath all that Bennettism, he makes his points here such that, by the end of Allelujah, I, and I suspect much of the audience, was both moved and angered by the plight of its subject, the NHS, here becoming a metaphor for the breakdown of community and State by decades of neo-liberalism and “market solutions”. The Bethlehem is an august Yorkshire hospital, meeting its “targets” but threatened by closure simply because it is too small and negates the fatuous “economies of scale” that Government demands. The surprisingly hands-on Chair of its trust, Salter, a robust performance from Peter Forbes, isn’t going down without a fight however, recruiting a documentary team (Sam Bond and Nadine Higgin) to the cause. The action is centred on the geriatric ward, highlighting that many of the patients here have nowhere else to go, from an august cast of twelve, dare I say, mature actors including the likes of Julia Foster, Gwen Taylor and Simon Williams. (I bet rehearsals for Alleluhah were a hoot). They sing, they dance, they reminisce, they moan, they have inappropriate conversations.
One of their number, Joe (a cantankerous Jeff Rawle, an AB regular), is paid a visit by his gay son, Colin, (Samuel Barnett), who just happens to be the slimey management consultant who is behind the closure plan. We also see a pair of grasping relatives, the Earnshaws, (Rosie Ede and Duncan Wisbey), who blame the hospital for robbing them of the inheritance, (note to AB, check out taper relief), feckless work experience teen Andy (David Moorst) and various put-upon staff (Manish Gandhi, Richie Hart, Nicola Hughes and Gary Wood).
The crux of AB’s didactic though is revealed by a pair of excellent performances from Sacha Dhawan as Dr Valentine and by the peerless Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist. She has an alarming system to ensure efficiency on her wards. Yet when she delivers her valedictory “farewell” speech there is real poignancy. Deborah Findlay really is a special actor who never seems to miss a step in the roles she takes on nor in the performances she gives. This is no exception.
Yet if you really want to be reminded of just how biting AB can still be when he wants to then look no further than the closing lines, delivered direct to audience from Sacha Dhawan’s student visa immigrant doctor. AB, by his own admission a “blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism”, is angry about the country we have become, and the risks we face, and, wisely, uses its most beloved institution, to vent his spleen. Don’t worry this is no in-yer-face political diatribe, it is AB through and through, and he doesn’t preach, but there is a cumulative rage which takes it well beyond 2012’s People or the autobiographical plays.
Nick Hytner is obviously an expert at presenting AB’s material and creating action out of pure text and here he is immeasurably helped by Bob Crowley’s versatile staging and the choreography of Arlene Philips and her assistant Richard Roe. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a soundtrack album emerging from the play: if you wanted to keep the old folk happy with a “knees up” at Christmas this fits the bill kids.
Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is currently on tout with Matthew Kelly as Auden and David Yelland as Britten and we have Mark Gatiss to look forward to in The Madness of George III at Nottingham Playhouse (to be broadcast on NT Live). I don’t think it will be too long before Allelujah gets another outing. It will be interesting to see just in what direction this country travels between now and then.