Posted on August 14, 2018
Only Alan Bennett could set a play in the geriatric ward of an all-purpose community hospital and pack 900 seats with people dying to laugh about people dying.
During the initial scenes of Allelujah!, his first play in six years, now installed at the Bridge Theatre, nearly every line drew immediate laughter. Two and a half hours later, having witnessed the dangers and indignities of old age, dementia, euthanasia, media hype and official government policy on healthcare and immigration, the audience was listening more closely and laughing less.
Focusing on the colourful old dears inhabiting this ward, the play delivers an affectionate tribute to the NHS on its 70th birthday and a Hallmark card of support for the patients who entrust their lives to it. We can recognise the characters almost before they speak, from the friendly Indian doctor to the officious chair of the hospital trust to the squabbling, sometimes irrational seniors. Every line out of their mouths is familiar, and somehow you hear one voice, Bennett’s, coming out of every mouth.
The acclaimed author of The History Boys, The Madness of George III and The Lady in the Van, Bennett has become a national treasure in his own right, like David Hockney and David Attenborough. His lifetime of achievement and his age – he’s 84 – guarantee that every effort will earn a sympathetic reception, and his experience, with both the health service and playwriting, enable him to position the former inside the latter credibly.
Real life, however, is more dramatic and more moving than this play. Despite staff shortages, physical pain and mental confusion, the elderly are known to find the hospital community so comforting that they often don’t want to go home; professionals call it pyjama paralysis. Every day, private conversations, the press, and the wielders of public power address the cost of caring for our ageing population and the lack of beds available for those who need them. However, Bennett’s soft-hearted sentiments romanticise problems that, for theatrical skewering, demand more than toilet jokes and malapropisms.
The only ray of natural sunshine in his shadowy comedy shines from Arlene Phillips’ choreography, though dance is the last thing you might expect to salvage the evening. Old codgers dancing? Well, yes. Batty they may be, but they’re irresistibly charming when old tunes remind them of happier days.
The women rise to their feet, lift their arms, and sway, pert as chorines, to “A, You’re Adorable.” Everyone lines up to take their pills, downing them as neatly as a military drill, one by one on consecutive beats, to “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain. As a special treat, a nurse waltzes gently with a crotchety patient, and when three jaunty men swing their canes in an overhead arc and rap them smartly beside their feet, they also revive their dapper youth.
The second act opens with an exuberant sock hop to “Good Golly, Miss Molly” – even artificial hips can Twist – and closes, after the hospital has been closed, with the gang ambling off into England’s green and pleasant land, cocking their heels and waving cheerily, to “I Ain’t Got a Barrel of Money.” Corny? You bet, but also touching and less eccentric than brave.
Pictured: The cast of Allelujah! Photographs by Manuel Harlan.