As I walk towards The Bridge theatre, neon-red letters scream at me from the front of the building. Nicholas Hytner’s sparkling new bankside venue is grand and exciting. What a place, then, to stage Alan Bennett’s Allelujah! – a play about a much creakier, imperiled edifice.
Bennett’s latest offering, directed by long-time collaborator Hytner, is set in the geriatric ward of the Bethlehem Hospital, affectionately nicknamed The Beth. We are encouraged to see The Beth with the same fondness we see its patients. Like the delightful cast of geriatrics, the hospital is old and beset with problems, yet charming and indispensable.
Tragically, the institution’s cradle-to-grave care is considered too cosy for harsh realities of modern life, and the looming threat of closure sparks a campaign to ‘Save the Beth’. Peter Forbes’ well-meaning but pompous, bumbling chairman takes the helm, and arranges for a documentary to be made about the hospital. It is the roaming camera which not only enables comic moments, but also the play’s central dramatic turn.
When Bennett’s acerbic wit is allowed breathing space, the play shines. The best moments are those where sharp comedy is tempered by the grim realities of life on a geriatric ward. Gags about bladder control, impotence, and prostates abound. So does gallows humour. ‘How rude’, remarks Simon Williams’ endearingly grumpy Ambrose after hearing that his friend has died in the night. ‘Didn’t he realise there’s a queue?’
But jokes are not the whole story, and Bennett’s anger at the NHS’s decline bubbles below Allelujah’s surface. Sacha Dhawan’s Dr. Valentine is a good-natured student doctor threatened with deportation, and his plot strand quietly rages at the government’s hostility towards immigration. While the message is worthwhile, and pointedly relevant today, this thread often lacks subtlety. Valentine’s direct plea to the audience late in the second half unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall, and gives the impression that we are simply listening to Bennett tell us what he thinks.
The ruthless axe of privatisation is embodied by Samuel Barnett’s sneering Colin, who has come back to his hometown to visit his ailing father. Colin wears lycra cycling gear, works in Whitehall, and goes to the opera with the Minister for Health – the very person who will decide the fate of The Beth. Colin looks too much like the pantomime villain, and I cannot help but be disappointed at some rather ham-fisted social commentary.
There is much to admire in this production. Hits of winking nostalgia are provided in spades as the geriatric horde get up and dance to vintage songs at regular intervals. It is delightfully surreal to see the usually chair-bound patients jive along to Good Golly Miss Molly as the curtain comes up for the second half. Nicola Hughes’s twinkly-eyed Nurse Pinkney even lets the patients sing hymns as an impromptu choir, yet this is deemed too cosy by the older and more hardened Sister Gilchrist. The cast is assured, with Julia Foster and Jeff Rawle providing especially good performances.
But beyond the frills of dry witticisms and gleeful dancing is a play which lacks some depth and focus. The second half becomes almost bloated with half-hearted plots, from an implausible crime narrative to some rather blunt ideological pronouncements. The play just feels a little more tired and old-fashioned than Bennett’s most successful work.
As we applaud the play’s end after a mixed two and a half hours, the impossibly energetic cast are still dancing with excitement. Unfortunately, I’m not quite doing the same.
Allelujah! is at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September