Review - Alan Bennett's Allalujah! at the Bridge Theatre
In his first play for six years, Alan Bennett takes aim at privatisation of the NHS on its 70th anniversary. Teaming up once again with director Nicholas Hytner at his new theatre, the Bridge, the pair deliver a glimpse inside the country’s threatened hospitals. But for a play about a group of people knocking on death’s door, and being failed by those who should be looking out for them, it isn’t doesn’t quite pack the punch it should.
We’re at the Beth - the Bethlehem Hospital, named so because it 'won’t turn anyone away’ - faced with cuts and closure, with beds in every corridor and a geriatric ward bursting at the seams. The ward has become a staple in the community, and threatened with relocation to Tadcaster, there’s been a drive to keep the facility open with donations, charity skydives, and a documentary showcasing the hospital.
When Colin, son of patient Joe, cycles up from London, we enter what feels like is going to be a relatively dull play. He’s an aide to the Minister for Health, and one of the spearheads of the closure of the hospital. He’s Bennett’s main vehicle to push the politics and, like most of the characters with patients in the ward, frustratingly cold at the prospect of his father dying.
Just when Allelujah! threatens to drag, there’s hope. Sister Gilchrist, the stern mother hen of the ward played by a calm Deborah Findlay, is set to be recognised for her commitment to the ward. But we find out that she relies on the high turnover of the patients - empty beds being the final prognosis of most who arrive - and takes the matter of permanently discharging them into her own hands.
There are, naturally, more roles for an older generation of actors than I’ve ever seen on stage, and it’s a joy that Hytner’s direction doesn’t completely confine them to their chairs and zimmers. Seeing Arlene Philips credited as the choreographer comes as a surprise, but Hytner gives the patients a breath of youthfulness with group routines scattered about the piece, and Joe, who cannot walk, but is able to waltz with Sister Gilchrist freely. In the end, it grows tired, feeling more like a coffee morning line dance group.
We get the same treatment as the patients recount mundane stories from their lives: one patient’s high point in life was being thanked by Michael Parkinson for holding a door open. They’re stories you would sit through and be quite interested if your old Nan was nattering away, but that’s because you care about family, it’s not quite the same for this group of characters.
There are three doctors in the play: two junior doctors, frustrated by targets and enticed by more lucrative contracts in private hospitals, and Dr. Valentine, a committed physician who faces deportation for staying in the country on a student visa. It’s just one of a series of simply tragic consequences doctors witht their heart in the right place face.
Bennett fits a lot more into this play: a doctor being accused of being ‘too handsy’, children waiting for their parents to die, a group of people facing their own mortality together. It is funny, but perhaps this is more a play about facing death than it is a searing political statement about our dwindling beloved NHS. Either way, it isn’t as heartbreaking as it should be.
Photo credit Manuel Harlan