Allelujah!Posted by Laurence Green
84-year-old Alan Bennett has done it again! "Allelujah!" is a play driven by affection, compassion and rage, finishing on a heartfelt plea: “Open your arms before it's too late!” Laurence Green reviews the playright's state of the nation opus.
It is always an event when Alan Bennett produces a new play and his latest Allelujah! (Bridge Theatre), his first for six years, has his trademark quirkiness and warmth, an affection for eccentricity and a belief in the liberating power of music. Yet it is a piece of a quiet anger under its surface charm by using a hospital as a way of dissecting the problems of the body politic.
The setting is the geriatric ward of a small Yorkshire hospital, the Bethlehem, threatened by closure. The patients are mainly stoical but it is not going down without a fight. Salter, the pompous chair of its trust, has waged a sponsorship campaign to keep it alive and has a TV crew on hand, waiting for something to happen. The arrival, however, of Colin, a spiky management consultant attached to the health ministry, suggests that the days of this kind of cradle-to-grave hospital are numbered. Colin is visiting his dad Joe, a former miner who is at the mercy of a mischievous youth on work experience and who shows him little respect. The pivotal scene is a confrontation between Salter and Colin in which the former makes a case for a hospital that serves its community, is efficiently run and even makes a profit. To Colin, the hospital’s success in meeting its targets is proof of its dispensability. “The state” he argues “should not be seen to work. If the state is seen to work, we shall never get rid of it”.
There are also unpalatable threats typified by the case of kindly Doctor Valentine, an immigrant doctor, whose visa has expired and is now threatened with deportation.
As the future of the hospital hangs by a thread, the patients serve as a poignantly fragile chorus, performing classic songs, arranged by George Fenton, which act as proof of the durability of age and a timely reminder of a lost happiness.
This is a sharp, funny, subversively, political play, whose episodic structure, is cleverly camouflaged by Nicholas Hytner as director, Bob Crowley as designer and Arlene Phillips as choreographer. The provocative element of the story is that with so few patients to be discharged as they have nowhere else to go, it falls to self-appointed angel of mercy Sister Gilchrist to ensure the ward has a rapid turnover by fatally injecting the most incontinent, thereby freeing up bed space.
There is no mistaking Bennett’s dismay at the indignities of old age and here he brings a spotlight to the old and scrutinises what is happening to care and how we measure success. All of this could seem very earnest but Bennett brings humanity and a strong vein of mordant humour to this state of the nation opus. “She was C of E, but with all these vicars being had up, she went over to atheism,” declares the daughter of a woman with dementia, who complains relentlessly that she has been swindled out of her home. In a 25-strong cast there are some excellent performances, notably Deborah Findlay as the criminally efficient Sister Gilchrist, Peter Forbes as the self-aggrandising Salter, Samuel Barnett as the cynical Colin and Sacha Dhawan as the precarious Doctor Valentine. Among the patients are impressive turns from Julia Foster as a former librarian, Jeff Rawle as the obstreperous old miner and Simon Williams as a scholarly teacher.
This, then, is a play driven by affection, compassion and rage, finishing on a heartfelt plea: “Open your arms before it's too late!” Rejoice - 84-year-old Bennett has done it again!
Plays until Saturday 29 September at the Bridge Theatre, London.
Box Office: 0333 320 0051
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