Bridge Theatre – until 29 September
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Alan Bennett’s first new play in 6 years is a charming celebration of the NHS and a dire warning of its perilous state. The Bethlehem Hospital in Yorkshire is still a “cradle to grave” facility, so is on the minister’s list for closure. Chairman of the hospital trust, Salter (the fantastically oily Peter Forbes) has done everything possible from ridiculous fundraising events to renaming the wards – gone are the likes of William Wordsworth ward, instead visitors are directed to Shirley Bassey, Joan Collins and Dusty Springfield. The patients on Dusty Springfield ward have been corralled into a choir by Nurse Pinkney (Nicola Hughes), while all Sister Gilchrist worries about is keeping a dry ward, with any incontinent patients being placed on her ominous “list”.
Bennett has always been able to write memorable older characters, and the patients on the ward are a delight. Yes, there isn’t the time to develop each character fully, making some seem caricatures – but when they are this funny it doesn’t really matter. Having a local film crew filming the fight to keep the Beth open allows the patients to speak directly about their lives without breaking the fourth wall, and their interactions are so beautifully timed and natural that the monotony of life on the ward is palpable. Gwen Taylor as leopard print clad glamorous Lucille bickers with Patricia England as Mavis, who puts on her telephone voice to speak to the camera, while shy librarian Mary (Julia Foster) watches everything around her. Simon Williams’ old schoolmaster Ambrose trying desperately to fight off the affections of Sue Wallace as Hazel is something you could watch all night. As usual with Bennett, the switch from whimsy to melancholy is abrupt and powerful, never more so than when the patients contemplate their present situations.
The inclusion of the choir lifts this production to the emotional heights as the cast sing songs from their youth, arranged wonderfully by George Fenton. The joy and vitality that the patients still possess is expressed as they suddenly rise from their chairs to perform charming dance routines choreographed by Arlene Phillips. If you don’t have teary eyes as the cast end their final number, then you have a heart of stone.
Nicholas Hytner has an innate understanding of Alan Bennett’s writing, and allows the first act to unfold gently before the jaw-dropping final scene that sends the play in a new, darker direction. Bob Crowley’s design is simple but clever, with the magnolia walls of the hospital rolled back and forth like privacy curtains by the hospital staff.
Bennett includes lots of political barbs through the introduction of Colin (Samuel Barnett), a consultant for the minister visiting his father at the hospital that he is determined to close down. His response to Salter’s affirmation that the hospital has met all its targets is shot down with “The State should not be seen to work. If the State is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.” The attitudes of Brexit Britain are tackled through Sacha Dhawan’s Dr Valentine – the only staff member who seems to view and respect the older patients as human beings – and his visa troubles. Dhawan’s final speech, direct to the audience, is a passionate challenge to growing nationalism, delivered not with anger, but a resigned and charming smile. Even Sister Gilchrist’s extreme methods for meeting targets isn’t sensationalised – in a stunning performance Findlay doesn’t make Gilchrist a monster, just a beaten down professional doing what she thinks is practical and right.
Allelujah! is one of the must-see shows of the summer – charming, warm, nostalgic and funny, but also sharp, sad and sometimes wince-inducingly painful to watch. Just like visiting hours really