Alan Bennett’s first new play for over five years is the latest piece to take up residency at the Bridge Theatre, under the watchful of Nicholas Hytner. It follows the limited runs of Barney Norris’ Nightfall and the Laura Linney vehicle My Name Is Lucy Barton, with the auditorium returning to its original setup after several demonstrations of its versatility. Allelujah! sees the stage reunion of two of Bennett’s History Boys, with Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett in starring roles, as he tackles the State and hospital closures up in Yorkshire.
The Bethlehem Hospital, a cradle to grave institution in a small town, is under threat of closure, in spite of overwhelming public support and the fact that it actually turns a profit. Salter (Chair of the Trust) has implemented the changes suggested by the Department of Health (including renaming the wards after people such as Shirley Bassey, Fatima Whitbread and Joan Collins), but to try and boost their chances further he has invited a film crew in to make a documentary about the hospital – they even leave a camera with one of the residents of the Dusty Springfield geriatric ward in a bid to cover more ground and find an interesting angle. However, they get a rude awakening when a management consultant attached to the DoH turns up to visit his ailing father, giving them the awful reality that the will of one person usually trumps democracy. With long-serving nurse Sister Gilchrist about to retire and Dr Valentine under the scrutiny of immigration, will they be able to save the Beth after all?
Upon glancing at the list of creatives, there’s one entry that might seem slightly bizarre: Arlene Phillips (choreographer). However, when you see the show it all starts to make sense; one of the focuses of the documentary filming is the geriatric ward, and within that they have a choir. So dotted throughout the play are several songs, a few of which see the patients harking back to the good old days with a bit of a dance. While these are maybe a little overdone in places, it does give the show a charming feel – as well as providing multiple comedy moments at various intervals. By concentrating on the geriatric ward as opposed to any other part of the hospital, the play efficiently covers several timely topics in one fell swoop (an ageing population, social care and the precarious state of the NHS); it may reference Thatcher, but that fits both with the age of the residents and the country’s current Prime Minister.
“The State should not be seen to work. If the State is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.” Amidst the brilliant comedic moments are chillingly perceptive lines like this, stating something many of us fear to say aloud – these are bleak times, but at the same time it’s reassuring that Bennett’s own roots are still close to his heart despite having lived in London for a considerable time.
With Dr Valentine’s inclusion, the play also lightly touches on the effects of Brexit – the anonymous immigration official claiming that Britain has its own doctors drew derisive laughter from the press night audience. Admittedly this particular strand of the play does feel slightly less developed than other parts, but everything does still tie in neatly enough, and this is an important issue to raise when you consider the state of the health service.
Bob Crowley’s set design ensures we are reminded of the hospital’s heritage with its grand old sign on constant display, while demonstrating as much modernity as a little institution such as this can manage. With its sliding walls, it makes excellent use of the stage’s depth and allows for seamless transitions between scenes and locations within the hospital.
As well as the excellent storytelling opportunities that come from the use of the geriatric ward, it’s also a boon in terms of finding new roles for older actors; there’s a particularly impressive number of older women gracing the stage. Whether it’s the former dancer Lucille (Gwen Taylor), quiet & ignored Mary (Julia Foster) or amorous Hazel (Sue Wallace), the characters are varied and their personalities rapidly established. Jeff Rawle is brilliantly grouchy as the cantankerous Joe, father to Barnett’s Colin, and you also find yourself drawn to Simon Williams, a master of comedy & pathos as Ambrose – constantly fighting off Hazel’s advances whilst waiting for a visitor who seems destined to never arrive. David Moorst provides a few chuckles as the incredibly apathetic work experience lad Andy, and Deborah Findlay’s calm & professional portrayal of Sister Gilchrist belies an unexpected side to her character.
My verdict? A love letter to the NHS, masterfully written by Bennett with lots of lovely touches – the 25-strong cast are impressive and really bring the play to life.
Allelujah! runs at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.