With Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre, the return of Alan Bennett leaves me less than enthused
“Still, it was better than this”
In some ways, Allelujah! is perfectly symptomatic of the problem I have with the Bridge Theatre. Does London really need any new theatres, no matter how much people think they want interval madeleines? Does it especially need ones that put on large-scale Alan Bennett premieres? It is nice to see Nicholas Hytner maintaining the long-gestating creative relationship he has with Bennett but at the point where his new venture is now just a carbon-copy of his former home down the South Bank, except with premium seating, it is increasingly hard to make the case for it.
It doesn’t help that this isn’t vintage Bennett. His first play in six years, Allelujah! takes place in the crowded geriatric ward of the Bethlehem, a Yorkshire hospital threatened with closure. A camera crew are filming a documentary, allowing many of the patients to wax lyrical about lives that have passed on by, the England that once was. And in the corridors around the hospital, Bennett similarly lets rip, on the loss of compassion in our society, a social care system on its knees, an NHS in an even worse state, privatisation, gentrification, the downright stupidity of an immigration system that is leaching away the very talent we need to stay.
That’s a whole lotta issues to cover and with a company of 25, that’s also a whole lotta characters to service. And naturally, in spreading his writerly gifts so thinly, much here feels insubstantial. Caricatures abound, too many characters exist purely to make one point, unnecessary plot contrivances stick out like sore thumbs and the tweeness of the singalongs (the ward has its own choir, perfect for those scene changes…) only evokes nostalgia of the lavender talc kind. Even when a plot finally kicks in just before the interval, it twists the play into a strange place that seems to undermine much of the previously-made arguments.
There are golden moments in here – lines of comic gold delivered to perfection by several of the older cast members, Bennett’s affinity for sharp humour flashing into evidence like an erratic heart monitor. And there’s so much packed into the early conversation between the hospital manager and the ministerial adviser about the possibilities of a modernised NHS that one can’t help but wish that that had been the springboard for the drama instead. In a grand ensemble that contains the likes of Deborah Findlay, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Gwen Forbes, Nicola Hughes, Peter Forbes, the list just goes on and one…there are zero complaints about the acting. It’s the play that is on life support.