Allelujah! at The Bridge Theatre, London.
There is a danger in discovering a new work from a beloved writer, especially when that writer has been largely silent for several years. Might they have lost their touch? Might a new work sully happy memories of their previous greatness?
I am happy to report that there need be no such worries about Allelujah!, the new play by Alan Bennett. With Bennett (and director Nick Hytner, his long-term collaborator) we are in safe hands. In this play, Alan Bennett, national treasure, takes on another, the NHS. Allelujah! is set (of course) in Yorkshire, in the geriatric ward of ‘The Beth’; more properly The Bethlehem Hospital, and old-fashioned but much-beloved cradle-to-grave establishment. Which, of course, the government wants to close down.
Into this faintly biblical setting comes, appropriately enough, a Prodigal son – Colin, (former History Boy Samuel Barnett). He’s here to visit one of the patients, his father Joe (Jeff Rawle), but he also works for the health minister who wants to close the hospital.
Hytner has – of course – assembled a great cast, who are all on top form. As well as the two above, there’s also another former History Boy, Sacha Dawan, as a sympathetic doctor, and Deborah Finlay as a nurse to whom there may be more than meets the eye. There’s also a wonderful geriatric chorus line, that I wish they’d made just a little bit more use of. Also worthy of a mention is David Moorst as Andy the work experience boy, who perfectly captures teenage dumb insolence.
The play is very funny, full of wonderful, typically Bennett lines: “Last time I was here I was on Montgomery Ward, now it’s Dusty Springfield. Don’t say there hasn’t been any progress.” Bennett is often thought of as soft and cuddly, but there’s proper bite as Bennett makes his point about our lack of respect and consideration for the old. There’s also a little jibe at politicians, in Samuel’s line: “The state can’t be seen to work; how will we able to get rid of it?”
The set nicely evokes the slightly crumbling NHS hospital, with its slightly peeling green walls and acres of blue signs which will be only too familiar to anyone who’s ever got lost trying to find a relative at visiting time.
It’s not flawless – the first half is perhaps too long, building very, very slowly to a gear change just before the interval (on the other hand, when the journey is this much fun, why not enjoy the ride?) and the second half feels like it’s trying to cram in too many points. But, overall, this is a worthy addition to the Bennett cannon. Allelujah for that!
Allelujah! runs at The Bridge Theatre until 29th September. https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/allelujah/