Fifty years after his play “Forty Years On,” Alan Bennett is still pining for the England of old. Just as his first play lamented the slipping standards of an old public school and, by extension, the nation at large, so “Allelujah!” sees an ailing National Health Service hospital as symptomatic of a wider national malaise. The show, now playing at Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre, is full of all the playwright’s signature elements — warmth, wry humor, faith in humankind — but at some point, you have to ask whether his idyllic, old England ever really existed. His nostalgia’s seductive, but mighty sentimental — and maybe, in this misty-eyed political climate, dangerous too.
Set in the geriatric wing of a Yorkshire hospital at full stretch, its future hanging in the balance, “Allelujah!” throws up a collage of characters and a criss-cross of subplots. Among the patients, singing in the hospital’s in-house OAP choir, are a retrograde ex-miner still railing against Margaret Thatcher, a good-hearted grammar-stickler of a former schoolteacher, and a well-to-do heiress wishing she’d had the cash to go private. They’re cared for by Sacha Dhawan’s Doctor Valentine, a personable physician at risk of deportation by an increasingly hostile state, and the formidable ward mistress Sister Gilchrist, a clean-freak with no time for the incontinents whose names she keeps — ominously — on a list.
At the center of “Allelujah!” is an ardent ideological battle: Samuel Barnett’s Colin, up to visit the dwindling father he half-despises, is the Whitehall management consultant charged with streamlining a cash-strapped NHS, determined to shut small-scale units and drive towards centralization. The hospital’s chairman, Peter Forbes’ pinstripe-suited ex-mayor Salter, has countered with a publicity campaign, inviting a camera crew in to rally public support for the institution — only partly out of ego. He’s got the place hitting its targets — just — but knows that’s not enough. Colin snares him in a logical trap: hospitals in the red are unaffordable; profitable ones ought to be privatized. “If the state is seen to work, we will never be rid of it.”
As in Peter Nicholls’ 1969 play “The National Health,” the National Health Service serves as a proxy for the nation itself. Bennett, who describes himself as a conservative socialist, treads a careful political line, cheering the social liberalism that’s put paid to outmoded attitudes yet denigrating the economic neoliberalism that puts efficiency ahead of humanity. In the figure of Sister Gilchrist, austerely played by Deborah Findlay, Bennett draws a line between cleanliness and capitalism — neither of which tolerates waste, no matter the human cost.
Like “Forty Years On,” “Allelujah!” is part play, part revue: a sitcom really, but with serious intent. Though loosely strung together, its scenes sit like sketches — the best sees two chairbound rivals swapping sex stories as crisply as any Caryl Churchill short play — and between them, patients spring out of their seats into Arlene Phillips’ quaint song-and-dance numbers: pill-popping chorus lines and cane-twirling tap routines. With Bennett’s trademark one-liners in song — “Heaven’ll be like just like Heathrow: there’ll be a VIP lounge” — Nicholas Hytner’s staging is never anything less than likeable.
But the play is too far removed from reality for its satire to sting. Bennett’s characters are stick men, straw men and ciphers, each a symbol of some British virtue or vice. “Allelujah!” is not without its moments — it can swivel from comedy to poignancy in a flash, bawdy jokes swallowed up by coughing fits — but its hospital has all the credibility of a political slogan on the side of a bus. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of social and structural ills — from overpaid, self-important execs to unpaid interns with no self-respect — that exists entirely to confirm Bennett’s case, not to reflect the true state of the NHS. You sense the playwright, at 84, has swapped research for partisan reportage and maudlin memories of a past that never was.