Review – Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre

Wednesday 18 July 2018

You have to hand it to The Bridge Theatre for jumping the gun. The publicity tells us that “Alan Bennett’s new play Allelujah! is as sharp as The History Boys and as funny as The Lady in the Van“. Err, we’ll get back to you on that.

Notice there’s no mention of Mr Bennett’s last two offerings, The Habit of Art and People. We can’t imagine why.

The nearly good news is that Bennett is back on form. Well almost. Occasionally. This is as probably as close as we dare hope for at this stage. There is a decent smattering of laughs and an extravagant cast of 25 (many of whom are of a certain age – allelujah!) which will probably make transferring to the West End economically problematic. Though Andrew wryly observed it is something of a gift for amateur companies when the rights become available.

In Mr Bennett’s latest whimsy-laden piece the patients and staff at the threatened-with-closure Pennine located Bethlehem Hospital are performed by Simon Williams (72), Ben Fogle’s mother Julia Foster (74), Gwen Taylor (79), Deborah Findlay (70), Jacqueline Clarke (76), Louis Mahoney (79), Cleo Sylvestre (who is not only 73, but also a goddaughter of Tom Driberg) and Jacqueline Chan (79, who appeared in the Liz Taylor Cleopatra for goodness sake) and a whole load more, many of whom you wish were Liz Smith. Bennett cannot be accused of not talking about his generation or not giving them employment.

Samuel Barnett plays Colin who has cycled hundreds of miles from London in a tight cyclist’s outfit without appearing to break a sweat. Barnett is so fit that he disproves the theory that lycra is always an unforgiving fabric. Colin is multitasking by not only visiting his dad (Jeff Rawle a mere 66 and spiffingly good) in the hospital but aiding the government minister he works for in an attempt to close the place down. Tricky.

Meanwhile a documentary crew is filming the hospital’s fight for survival while staff struggle to solve the problem of geriatric bed-blocking. The wards are all named after famous people with names selected for their comedy potential. A joke which is stretched so far it doesn’t so much touch down in sitcom territory as nose dive into it.

As a play it feels a tad old-fashioned despite circling a variety of hot subjects including, of course, the NHS, care for the elderly, privatised healthcare and immigration. Bennett’s predictable politics sometimes feel clumsily shoehorned in, especially in a heavy-handed closing speech delivered by Sacha Dhawan‘s Dr Valentine. But then Act 1 had seemed preoccupied with being rather cosy and twee especially with the constant plot-delaying interruptions as the elderly patients break into song and fantasy dance routines. Conveniently they’re an old people’s choir. Think of it as a Cocoon meets a Stepping Out and Follies mash up. Arlene Phillips (75) choreographs and you do wonder if some of the cast were deliberately encouraged not to turn up for dance rehearsals. You’ll either find these moments utterly delightful or irritating, slightly patronising, sentimental and playing to the gallery. Guess which camp Phil fell into.

Just before the interval things take a sudden, agreeably dark and surprising turn which threatens a more interesting second half, though the theme is dealt with somewhat perfunctorily in favour of more song and dance. We will reveal nothing of it and leave the real critics to spoil things when they pontificate in the papers. They just can’t help themselves can they?*

Bob Crowley‘s sets are depressingly dreary; capturing the feel of an NHS hospital quite perfectly. Though Phil, who has visited quite a few geriatric wards in recent years (Andrew insert your own gag here), has never seen a ward of elderly patients anywhere near as animated and as on the ball as those displayed here. Nicholas Hytner directs and he really should take a chisel to the more fanciful elements.

We recommend dashing for the exit before the cloying musical number and ghastly clap along that is the curtain call. The Bridge is appalling designed for getting people out quickly. We, like many of this audience, queued so long to get out we had time to plan or own care home requirements which were becoming decidedly more urgent the longer we waited.

Phil overheard a middle class couple on the wrong side of middle age discussing it on the tube station afterwards.

Her: Why were the applauding so wildly at the end?
Him: Relieved it was over I would imagine.

*We’ll let you know here which critics give it away.
Update: The two Dominics, Maxwell and Cavendish in the Times and Telegraph so far. With others dropping very broad hints.

Rating

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One Response to “Review – Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre”

  1. Ethel Malley Says:

    I saw a preview and was fairly unmoved. The subject matter is depressing and remains so despite a few good zingers. It was like an anthology of Bennett preoccupations in search of a play.

    The “dark and surprising turn” you mention seemed perfunctory and barely explored as it had no place in Bennett Land.

    While it’s better than any play I will write at 84, I feel community theatre is its natural home, with a part for all as wants one. (Whether anyone much will want to watch it is another matter.) Beside the splendid achievements of The History Boys and The Habit of Art it seems instantly forgettable.


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