×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Allelujah!’ by Alan Bennett

As Britain's National Health Service hits 70, Bennett's new play, his first in five years, pines for a past that never really existed.

With:
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, Gary Wood, Duncan Wisbey.

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.

London Theater Review: 'Allelujah!' by Alan Bennett

Bridge Theatre, London; 900 seats; £65, $85 top. Opened, reviewed July 18, 2018. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Production: A Bridge Theatre production of a play in two acts by Alan Bennett.

Creative: Directed by Nicholas Hytner; Design, Bob Crowley; choreography, Arlene Phillips; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound, Mike Walker; music, George Fenton; music director, Richie Hart.

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, Gary Wood, Duncan Wisbey.

More Legit

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink' Film [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

  • 'Pinter Seven' Review: Martin Freeman Stars

    West End Review: 'Pinter Seven' Starring Martin Freeman

    “Pinter at the Pinter” has been an education — a crash course in Britain’s greatest post-war playwright. Director-producer Jamie Lloyd’s star-studded, six-month sprint through Harold Pinter’s short plays and sketches has been exquisitely curated and consistently revelatory. Not only has Lloyd tuned audiences into the writer’s technique, his unconventional groupings have exposed a load of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content