Eighty-four years old and still a walloping commercial draw, all-round National Treasure Alan Bennett is undimmed by the years, but not unconcerned by them.
Set in the geriatric ward of ailing Yorkshire hospital the Bethlehem, ’Allelujah!’ is less a play about Bennett’s own mortality – he did that in his last one, ’People’ – but rather that of his peers. And from gentle beginnings, it’s underpinned by an increasing rage about the state of this country – its ailing social care system, and its deteriorating sense of compassion.
It’s a slow start, as we’re introduced to a large cast of elderly Bethlehem patients – who occasionally burst into faux-whimsical song and dance that partially distracts from the many physical indignities they are made to suffer – surrounded by a more acerbically-drawn array of hospital staff and visitors, including a camera crew notionally out to make a heartwarming documentary about the place.
Bennett tartly touches on a lot of topics, from gentrification to NHS privatisation to London-centricity to the ‘hostile environment’ policy; above all, Britain’s wretched social care – most of these old-timers are still in the Bethlehem because there’s nowhere to discharge them to.
You wouldn’t necessarily say there was a plot, though: there are simply too many characters, many little more than tart ciphers (see Samuel Barnett’s shithead civil servant, Colin). Successfully luring his long-term collaborator Bennett over to his new Bridge Theatre, director Nicholas Hytner’s keeps things as coherent as he can, but the first half largely coasts by on the author’s towering wit.
Or at least it does until the flat-out brilliant – and extremely funny – scene just before the interval. It suddenly throws ‘Allelujah!’ into unexpectedly clear focus, with Deborah Findlay’s stern Sister Gilchrist emerging as the antagonist, for reasons it’s probably best not to divulge.
That twist both pulls the play together and turns it on its head. Any idea that Bennett might be romanticising the Bethlehem is immediately put to rest. And the tone shifts to a more darkly farcical one, swapping the initial gentleness for something tougher and weirder.
In a sense it’s difficult to know how to judge late-Bennett work, when the temptation is to simply be delighted he’s making work at all. ‘Allelujah!’ isn’t one of his great plays, but it’s hopefully not indulging in sentiment to say it is a pretty good one once it gets going. He remains a totally singular voice, and – crucially – extremely funny. As it picks up steam, ‘Allelujah!’ feels less like a gentle comedy, and more like a quiet curse on the country Bennett has chronicled his entire life.