I have to admit, it’s lovely to be back at the Bridge Theatre after the complete disaster of trying to get tickets to see their earlier show Nightfall. I booked for a Sunday matinee, only to be told a few weeks later that by then the run would have ended as they were squeezing another show into their timetable. So they transferred me to an earlier Sunday matinee, only to be told another few weeks later that the performance had been cancelled and could I manage a different date? No I could not! Whatever happened to the show must go on? As Oscar Wilde once (almost) said, “to cancel one performance may be classed a misfortune. To cancel two sounds like carelessness.” Clearly Sunday matinees at the Bridge Theatre are a thing of the past, which is a shame because Saturdays are always busy; for us, it will simply mean seeing fewer shows at this otherwise fantastic new theatre.
Anyway…. Allelujah for the return of Alan Bennett to the London stage. He’s 84 now; and sometimes, when a much loved and respected playwright reaches their later years, you can tell it by an increasing laziness or tiredness in the writing. Not so with Mr Bennett. Allelujah! has a sprightly construction, killer punchlines, devastating observations about the NHS and Life in General (whatever that is), memorable characterisations and a neat eye for the surreal. It’s rare for a first Act to end on two bombshells, both within the last ten seconds; but you’ll be going into the interval not knowing whether to be horrified or laughing out loud – probably both. There are some very moving and accurate portrayals of characters with dementia; if occasionally they verge on the cruel, it’s only because dementia itself is cruel and there’s no point hiding it. This play isn’t always an easy watch; more power to its elbow for being that stark.
To fill you in, the Bethlehem Hospital is in a parlous state because it no longer fits in with the modern NHS. It’s a local hospital, for local people; the kind of place where you go in with something wrong with you, they make you better, and you leave. No sexy surgical specialities; the books all add up and in fact the place is run so efficiently that it even makes something of a profit. But there’s a lot of bed-blocking, it doesn’t fit in with 21st century vision, and if they’re not careful, it’ll get closed down and all the patients (and some of the staff, perhaps) will get transferred to Tadcaster, Lord forbid. Save the Beth is the cry of the local protest movement, and TV cameras are out and about covering the hospital’s every move for the Local News. Salter, the Chairman of the Hospital Trust, is constantly fussing around trying to emphasise all its achievements, and brown-nosing anyone he suspects might be of influence; like in-patient Joe’s son Colin, who has cycled all the way from London to visit his dad, but who is known to work in Whitehall, if not actually as part of the Department of Health, but alongside the Department of Health. If anyone might be in a position to put in a good word for the future of the hospital, it’s Colin. But is he on their side? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.
It’s not the first time a hospital has been used as a metaphor for the state of British society. Allelujah reminded me strongly of Lindsay Anderson’s 1982 film Britannia Hospital, which did very much the same thing; it also featured a panicky and increasingly desperate Chief Administrator, and a TV documentary crew snooping round who (without giving the game away too much) observed some particularly nefarious and illegal goings on. What’s different about Allelujah is that, when everything else has dried up and failed, in the face of all adversity, indomitable human spirit carries on. And that’s shown in the singing.
Singing? So is this a musical? No not at all. Nor is it particularly a play about singing, although singing plays a major role. If you’ve ever had an elderly relative spend a long time in a hospital ward, or a care home, you’ll know that musical entertainment in the form of getting everyone around to join in a sing-song, is a successful way to lift spirits. So on the one hand, it looks a little surreal when all the old patients start singing songs together, but on the other, nothing could be more natural. The music is significant in many ways: 1) on the most basic level, it’s a spirit-lifter for the patients; 2) it reveals the youthful nature of what’s inside us all, no matter how old and decrepit we are on the outside, inside we’re all still 21; 3) no matter what problems beset us, we shall overcome; and 4) as our inexorably failing NHS and society in general steadily decline, we can divert ourselves from this inevitable horror by singing; a little like throwing yourself into the last verses on the Titanic.
I would, however, question the choice of songs. The average age of the people on the wards would, I would have thought, be something in the region of 80. So the songs that are really going to keep them buoyed up would be the songs they enjoyed during their 20s and 30s; so that would be songs of approximately 50 to 60 years ago; so roughly 1958 – 1968. The songs that feature in the show are actually more like those that Mr Bennett’s own parents would have enjoyed; so to me at least they felt strangely old-fashioned. I would have found it even more believable if they’d been singing some rock and roll and some Lennon & McCartney. Actually, the second Act opens with the patients performing a rousing version of Good Golly Miss Molly, just like they would have done in the Good Old Days, and it stood out like a beacon of sheer joy.
Bob Crowley’s design for the play is spot-on accurate in its representation of a busy hospital; all the signs, the notice boards, the reception areas, the magnolia walls, even the dado rails are absolutely perfect. We’ve all been to children’s wards where they’re given names like Disney Ward, Pooh Ward, Noddy Ward, and so on. Mr Bennett’s runs with this idea to create in Bethlehem Hospital, Dusty Springfield Ward, Shirley Bassey Ward, Len Hutton Ward, etc, which works perfectly.
Nicholas Hytner has brought together a comparatively huge cast of 25 to create a great ensemble atmosphere amongst the actors who play the patients; this creates something of an us and them feel in regard to their dealings with anyone outside their own group – so the medical staff, the visiting relatives, the documentary people definitely feel like outsiders. And it’s true, as this play deftly shows, some of those outsiders are not working in the patients’ best interests.
There isn’t a one single star performance in this play because there isn’t one single star role that is that central to the story; but there are some terrific performances throughout the cast. Peter Forbes is delightfully smarmy and slippery as Chairman Salter, constantly on the lookout to emphasise the best and disguise the worst, careful never to be out of the camera’s eye for too long; and, when it looks as though the Beth won’t be saved, he’s the first one to ensure his future security in whatever way he can. He doesn’t know quite how to handle Samuel Barnett’s Colin, though; Mr Barnett plays this strategic adviser-but-also-relative with cool, detached cynicism and a quiet adherence to a more ruthless vision for the NHS. There’s a chillingly eerie performance by the brilliant Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist, making her rounds with silent determination, rarely betraying any emotion; as her complete opposite number, Sacha Dhawan is excellent as Dr Valentine, keen as mustard, trying to engage with the patients on an emotional level – and put through the humiliation of a citizenship test that is truly cringeworthy. There’s also brilliant support from David Moorst as the gormless work-experience lad Andy; negligently trying to get away with as little effort as possible, whist still sucking up to the bosses.
And then there’s the fantastic cast of patients. Jacqueline Clarke shows she still has a great voice and charisma as the woeful Mrs Maudsley; Julia Foster is hilariously mischievous as Mary; Jeff Rawle as Joe shows not only great understanding of dementia but also brilliant comic timing and a genuinely horrified understanding of what his fate is to be. Gwen Taylor’s Lucille is still full of the vigour of a much younger and (what the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called) flightier woman; and Simon Williams’ Ambrose dishes out some fantastic cantankerous malevolence as his patience is tried too often.
P. S. For the attention of Alan Bennett: I have a bit of a gripe with the title, Mr Bennett. I was always taught that if it ends with a J and an H it starts with an H. If it ends with an I and an A, it starts with an A. Hallelujah or Alleluia; make your mind up!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan