'Allelujah!': Theater Review

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan
A musical medical murder mystery with a muddled message.
9/29/2018

British stage and screen icons Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner check the health of modern England in their latest collaboration.

One of Britain's most revered national treasures pays tribute to another in Alan Bennett's latest world premiere, Allelujah!, a tragicomic state-of-the-nation farce set in a crumbling hospital run by Britain's beloved but beleaguered National Health Service. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the NHS, the 84-year-old playwright's 10th collaboration with director Nicholas Hytner is a sprawling affair with a large ensemble cast and a lively musical dimension.

Alas, Allelujah! is no History Boys or Lady in the Van. Bennett's first stage premiere in six years has the timely themes and grand scale of a Big Statement Play, but lacks the focus and depth to land any serious punches. The structure is baggy and episodic, especially in the slow first act, and the ensemble cast confusingly overcrowded in places. There is a deliciously dark subplot, but it arrives too late, way past the midway point. This warm-hearted autumnal satire should do healthy business based on its author's gold-plated track record, but it lacks the suave ironies and sharp-witted verbal volleys of vintage Bennett. The emphatically British context and humor will also make it a tough contender for transatlantic transfer.

Allelujah! takes place deep in Bennett's heartland, both geographically and emotionally. The setting is the geriatric ward of the Bethlehem, an old-fashioned community hospital overlooking the picturesque Pennine hills in the author's native Yorkshire. This allows him plenty of scope to indulge his signature flair for putting wry, bawdy lines into the mouths of elderly women with northern English accents. Never have so many jokes about incontinence been squeezed into a single play. This shtick is very familiar but great fun, and serves as pure comfort food — to British ears, at least. Bennett in his element.

Among the sickly seniors on the ward are haughty former professor Ambrose (Simon Williams), aging vamp Lucille (Gwen Taylor) and dementia-afflicted new admission Mrs. Maudsley (Jacqueline Clarke). The hospital encourages these elderly inmates to keep their minds active by singing together in a makeshift choir.

Hytner, composer George Fenton and choreographer Arlene Phillips expand several of these sing-alongs into fantasy-tinged musical numbers in which sick, senile and wheelchair-using patients leap to their feet and twirl around the stage. Some are real showstoppers, especially a riotous full-cast rendition of "Good Golly, Miss Molly." There are pleasing echoes of the late Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective) in these antique jukebox interludes.

The medics in charge of the ward include kindly Indian-born Dr. Valentine (History Boys veteran Sacha Dhawan) and quietly disciplinarian ward nurse Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), who is nearing retirement and about to pick up a long service award. Overseeing both is clownishly self-important hospital boss Salter (Peter Forbes). Meanwhile, a TV documentary crew hovers around the senior patients, ostensibly working on the campaign to save the Bethlehem from government budget cuts, but privately eager to sniff out sensational material.

A gay management consultant with government connections, Colin (Samuel Barnett, another History Boys alum) drops into the Bethlehem on a rare visit home. Long resident in London, Colin wants the hospital shut down because he believes in profit-driven private health care over money-losing socialized medicine. He has embraced the hard-line right-wing economics introduced to Britain by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, partly in defiant rebellion against his homophobic ex-miner father, Joe (an excellent Jeff Rawle), who is now a geriatric ward patient. Bennett insists in his Allelujah! program notes that he does not intend to preach or pass judgment, but Colin's characterization feels simplistic and schematic.

After a rambling first act overloaded with such heavy-handed caricatures, Allelujah! hits the target more in its shorter second half. Bennett finds an acute metaphor for the target-driven managerial culture of the modern NHS by injecting a macabre murder mystery into the play's bloodstream, where it becomes intertwined with an illegal immigration plotline.

The jokes get sharper, the moral dilemmas darker and the politics angrier, especially a speech condemning small-minded British arrogance toward foreigners, which resonates deeply in the current Brexit-poisoned climate: "Open your arms before it's too late." But the ending feels oddly confused, undermining Bennett's own sentimentalized depiction of small-town hospitals in a way that suggests muddled motives more than artful reversals.

Beyond a light sprinkling of magical realism in its musical numbers, Allelujah! is a formally conservative piece. There are no multiple Bennetts breaking the fourth wall to deconstruct the narrative here, as in The Lady in the Van. Bob Crowley's sliding-wall set has a flat, naturalistic look. Hytner's staging is polished but solidly traditional and low on the kind of technical flourishes that might have given Bennett's potential career finale the emotional and political bite it lacks. That said, even a subprime Bennett play still feels like a cultural event, and it is heartening to witness this venerable octogenarian icon still raging softly against the dying of the light.

Venue: Bridge Theatre, London
Cast: Samuel Barnett, Sam Bond, Jacqueline Chan, Jacqueline Clarke, Sacha Dhawan, Rosie Ede, Patricia England, Deborah Findlay, Peter Forbes, Julia Foster, Manish Gandhi, Colin Haigh, Richie Hart, Nadine Higgin, Nicola Hughes, Anna Lindup, Louis Mahoney, David Moorst, Jeff Rawle, Cleo Sylvestre, Gwen Taylor, Sue Wallace, Simon Williams, Duncan Wisbey, Gary Wood
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Playwright: Alan Bennett
Set designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers
Music: George Fenton
Choreographer: Arlene Phillips
Presented by The Bridge