Alan Bennett, Allelujah (Br/dge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner)
Bennett has long since passed from tilter at the establishment to national treasure and still produces landmark plays with a political edge. Inevitably this is a late play — like all of us, he isn’t getting any younger — and like many of his works this has a public institution at its heart. It has a large almost ensemble cast and a closing series of monologues but, unlike The Lady in the Van and The Habit of Art it doesn’t really play metadramatic games. Those closing monologues remind me of Death of a Salesman — perhaps it is inevitable that a late play reminds me of lots of things.
At the heart of the play is the geriatric ward at the Bethlehem Hopsital in Yorkshire, which faces closure in favour of a larger hospital a number of miles away. As Colin (Samuel Barnett), a political adviser found with reasons to close the ward, comes to visit his dying father Joe (Jeff Rawle from Drop the Dead Donkey), some of the nurses and doctors have called in a documentary crew to film the geriatric choir that may yet save the place. Unfortunately, as the first act falls, a member of the hospital may well torpedo this plan.
One can’t help but feel that Bennett’s heart is — mostly — in the right place and the last forty years of government policies have jeopardised the success of a great national institution. Further, our paranoia about immigrants — and this play was written before the Windrush scandal broke — means that many of the workers in hospitals may not work for us much longer. But with singing and dancing oldsters we are in a fantasy land — how much is real and how much is what we want to see?
Suddenly I’m reminded of the social realist nostalgia of Terence Davies and the surreal memoir plays of Dennis Potter. The country may be going down the crapper, life may be shit, but at least you can have a sing song. When the geriatrics aren’t singing, their snappy dialogue seems like a dinnerladies reunion thirty years on, although perhaps Victoria Wood had been tuned by Bennett’s dialogue. The positioning of a song right at the end risks undercutting the play’s ending during the applause, as we are transported back to Victory Day and there is singing and dancing in the streets. We leave with a song in our hearts.
Three of the male characters may show where the play almost misfires, despite being an enjoyable and energetic evening. Firstly, the immigrant doctor, Ramesh (Manish Gandhi), whose immigrant status puts his career at state. You can’t help but be angry and this can’t help be political. Is he too angelic for the play’s own good? Meanwhile Colin, Joe’s gay son, is positioned as one of the play’s villains. At the same time, he’s lacking an arc. He arrives wanting the hospital closed and I didn’t get the sense of him learning anything, despite the trauma he goes through. He’s the son of a small town, born in the wrong culture, who managed to escape and he has been alienated and embittered by his experiences. But something is missing. Finally there is Andy (David Moorst), on the contemporary equivalent of the YTS, possibly a younger Colin, possibly a straight man in a small town that is more openminded than Colin gives it credit for. Too often he gets the cheap laugh. He is presented as the dim caretaker, risks performing clichés, unwittingly precipitates the crisis — and then vanishes largely from the narrative. he is not punished, he is not rewarded, he is not resolved, as closing monologues veer rather too much on the preaching, even if you disagree with the sermon.
The drama is dissipated.
There is laughter and there is sadness, but perhaps the game is too rigged.