To coincide with the 70th birthday of the National Health Service, 84-year-old Alan Bennett – almost as indispensable to Britain’s well-being as the NHS itself – has given our beleagured, overworked, under-staffed and underpaid jewel in this country’s crown, a birthday present that mixes jollity and anger in equal doses. It’s very funny and quite touching in parts, but the plot is best swallowed with the proverbial pinch of salt accompanied by a spoonful of sugar to remove the bitter taste.
The setting is a geriatric ward in an anachronistic “cradle to the grave” hospital in Yorkshire called The Bethlehem (or Beth for short) that might easily be confused with an expensive private-care home. Though there’s a cosy efficiency in the way the staff looks after its elderly patients, encouraging them, for example, to take part in communal choral activities, by contemporary NHS standards, it is failing to meet certain targets. “Bed blocking” is a particular problem because in most cases those well enough to be discharged have nowhere else to go. So they remain on, needlessly occupying a precious bed.
Trying to draw as much attention to the good work being done at The Beth is Salter (Peter Forbes), a gaffe-prone ex-mayor and now chairman of the Hospital Trust, who has managed to persuade a film crew to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the hospital, its patients and its staff. His one concession to modernising the place is naming the various wards after pop stars and other celebrities. Which doesn’t cut it for Colin (Samuel Barnett), a gay lycra-clad local management consultant of the Minister of Health, who, despite the fact that his stubbornly defiant ex-miner father Joe (Jeff Rawle) is one of the patients there, is oblivious to the good work being done and doesn’t approve of the old-fashioned set-up at all. “The state,” he cynically remarks, “should not be seen to work. If the state is seen to work we shall never be rid of it.”
The play’s rather rambling first half slowly sets the scene and introduces us to the 12 geriatric patients – each with their own mental and physical ailments – as well as the hard-working staff of seven, including Dr. Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), an immigrant who, because he failed to renew his student visa, is not only facing deportation, but has been accused by one of the female patients for being too “hands on.” Bennett has no qualms about stepping onto his soap-box to vent the anger he clearly feels towards the conservatives in cases such as Valentine’s. More preposterous, though, is the plot point he invents to solve some hitherto unexplained geriatric deaths a la Agatha Christie.
Essential to one’s enjoyment of a Bennett play is to accept what he tells you without asking too many questions. In The History Boys, for example, it is best not to question the likelihood of a boy’s school in Sheffield in the early 80s embracing homosexuality so openly and unquestioningly. They simply wouldn’t have. And I was very happy to accept the fictitious meeting between Auden and Britten in The Habit of Art. And if you turn a blind eye to the contrivances in the second half of Allelujah! I can vouch you’ll have a pretty enjoyable time.
Bennett’s empathetic approach to men and women way past their prime is at the forefront of this, his first new play since his misfire People in 2012, and it is interesting to speculate how many of his current crop of geriatrics would comfortably fit into his Talking Heads anthology.
Apart from several characteristically droll one-liners (“She used to be C of E but with all these vicars being had up, she went over to atheism.”), Bennett’s special brand of humour – from talking about bodily functions to grabbing a cheap laugh using a place name such as Scunthorpe – is in evidence throughout. So is his love of popular music. Ivor Novello show-tunes join a repertoire that also includes "Good Morning, Get Happy" and "Side by Side," sung and danced by most of the cast as an antidote to the miseries and humiliations of extreme old age. George Fenton is responsible for many of the arrangements, and the delightful yet discreetly unchallenging choreography is by Arlene Phillips.
Bennett’s director of choice, Nicholas Hytner, moves imperceptibly between the play’s revue-like elements (another Bennett trademark) and manipulates a very large cast with seamless precision, bringing out the best in Deborah Findlay as the cleanliness-obsessed, seemingly saintly Sister Gilchrist, and also in Rawle, Dawhan, Julia Foster, Jacqueline Clark as Mrs Maudsley (deep into her dementia) and Simon Williams as the erudite school-teacher Ambrose, waiting, like Godot, for a visitor who never turns up.
The simple set, with its movable panels, is by Bob Crowley.
Not vintage Bennett by any means, but acted and directed as if it were.