The Theatreguide.London Review
Bridge Theatre Summer 2018
A new Alan Bennett play is always a cause for rejoicing, and the aptly-named Allelujah! is the most Bennett-ish that Bennett has been for quite a while.
This is theatre as comfort food – familiar, reassuring, not particularly nutritious, and flavoured more by nostalgia than spices.
You are assured from the start that you will not be asked to think too much or to feel anything that might disturb you, and that you will leave with all the assumptions, values and beliefs you came in with completely undisturbed.
Even the jokes feel like old friends. 'I'm attached to the Department of Health,' says someone from the NHS visiting a hospital. 'That's more than we are' is the wry reply.
And a totally unsurprising, undemanding and reassuring play may well be what you want from a summer evening's theatre.
Allelujah! is set in a small northern hospital that is functioning pretty successfully but has run afoul of an NHS prejudice against generalist cradle-to-grave hospitals in favour of specialist centres, and is in danger of being closed down.
We are in the geriatric ward, which is filled with the kind of endearingly quirky, irascible, wise, dotty old folk who only exist in plays, and we understand that, with varying degrees of self-awareness, they are all just waiting to die.
The doctors, nurses and administrators appreciate that their job is to make the wait as painless as possible, and have encouraged the formation of a choir whose repertoire ranges from hymns through wartime pop standards to rock-n-roll.
So the dramatic action is punctuated frequently by gently-swinging song and dance numbers that sometimes suggest, rather sweetly, the ageing chorus girls of Sondheim's Follies.
Even what passes for a plot in this almost plotless picture is familiar – the visiting son of one patient is also the NHS consultant who will decide the hospital's future, and there is the tiniest bit of suspense over which way he will go.
And among the staff is the almost obligatory Angel of Death killer happy to speed the more troublesome patients on their way out.
Such is the all-embracing Bennett warmth of the play that even that killer is not really unloved, and other figures who could easily have been presented as villains or fools – the officious and prone-to-panic administrator, the NHS guy, an unfeeling and disdainful work-experience kid – are treated with sympathy and respect.
In a programme note Alan Bennett gives director Nicholas Hytner credit for cutting and shaping the unwieldy scripts he delivers into playable shape, and Hytner does keep things moving along even when they're not going anyplace in particular.
Sacha Dhawan as the standard-issue dedicated young doctor, Samuel Barnett as the NHS guy, Deborah Findlay as the head nurse and Peter Forbes as the administrator stand out in a large and attractive cast.
Yes, some old folk are going to die and the hospital is probably going to close. But the oldies go on singing Get Happy and The Sunny Side Of The Street, and so all's right in the Alan Bennett world.
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