To the delight of millions, across a period that now runs close to six decades, Alan Bennett has created a quirky, very personal world that sheds light on our own from unique, often oblique angles.
In Allelujah!, the playwright gets to work with his favourite director, Sir Nicholas Hytner (not to mention a couple of The History Boys now grown up) on a piece that is set in what is no longer known as a geriatric ward at an ailing smaller hospital, the Bethlehem (echoes of the madhouse?), somewhere in Yorkshire.
Now in his mid-80s, Bennett ostensibly focuses on his peer group, although in reality this is both a state of the nation play and a rather sardonic and pitying portrait of the National Health Service as it staggers unhealthily towards its 70th birthday.
The hospital ward is more like a residential care home, with few of the patients likely to emerge other than in a coffin. However, with the active encouragement of the management, represented by the haughty, self-serving Salter, played by Peter Forbes, they do at least get a regular singsong, much to the delight of the audience.
The professionals are as caring as their very constricted time permits. Sacha Dahwan’s Dr Valentine loves his vocation and does his very best with limited resources. However, despite the need of the health service, the doctor faces deportation, having overstayed the terms of what was originally a student visa.
Deborah Findlay on top form is Sister Gilchrist, the archetypal angel who really would feel completely at home in heaven. The staff love her and, with retirement at the end of 25 years of dedicated service fast approaching, she is about to be awarded a medal.
This would be the stuff of any number of TV medical dramas, had Alan Bennett not injected a strong political message, as the government seeks cost-cutting measures, which are likely to include the closure of this hospital, with the patients shipped to a much larger, less caring institution.
The Minister remains in London but an external consultant, played by Samuel Barnett, who coincidentally happens to be the son of one of the more lively patients, the excellent Jeff Rawle in the role of Joe, and presents a suitably cynical overview of the government’s thinking.
Allelujah! has many plus points. In particular, the message comes over loud and clear, while Alan Bennett’s jokes are as funny as ever and a ready supply of them adorn the 2½-hour evening, lightening what could otherwise have been a somewhat depressing atmosphere, given that patients are dying off as fast as the institution.
While the play presents a good overall picture of life for the elderly once they enter an NHS hospital, the cast is so large that we only get proper portraits of a couple of the residents, the remainder being little more than caricatures. However, the evening is significantly enlivened by some sinister plotting that changes the nature of the play for the good, at the same time allowing viewers to reconsider the politics and ethics of healthcare today.
Allelujah! may not see Alan Bennett at his very best, containing a few too many longueurs, but it is still a good play that will undoubtedly please his large fan base and, one hopes, embarrass the government into a further look at the plight of the NHS.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher