Theatre review: Allelujah

This NHS drama needs an injection of pace, says John Nathan



Pedigrees don’t come much better than Nicholas Hytner’s and Alan Bennett’s. This is the dream team that gave us The Madness of George III (the Hollywood version of which was renamed The Madness of King George, it is said, because American producers worried audiences might think they missed parts one and two), The History Boys and The Lady In The Van. And now 84-year-old Bennett is back with a whimsical state-of-the-nation play set in the geriatric ward of an NHS hospital.

Called the Bethlehem, “because, unlike the inn, no one was turned away”, it’s the kind of cradle-to-grave Yorkshire hospital that people get awfully nostalgic about when the letters N, H and S are mentioned.

That is to say it is small, local to the people who use it and also has a no-nonsense Hattie Jacques-style ward sister, played with intimidating steel by the always terrific Deborah Findlay.

And there are some very funny lines. One of the funniest is uttered by Health Ministry management consultant Colin, played by Samuel Barnett. As the original Jewish History Boy Posner, Bennett gave Barnett one of that play’s best lines: “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield. I’m f****d.” Here Barnett gets another. Though his Colin was born in Bethlehem (the hospital, not the town), and his father (Jeff Rawle) is one of its patients, he wants to close it down. But we first encounter him on his phone to his boyfriend indulging in some faux nostalgia as he gazes from the hospital window to Yorkshire’s “distant moors”. “No, not Muslims!”.

Yet the nostalgia that this production evokes is not so much for the NHS as for the dramatic potency of some of the Hytner and Bennett’s best collaborations of the past. A lot here depends on the depiction of daily life in the ward, which is being filmed as part of a campaign to keep the hospital open. The dialogue between the patients is sharply observed; particularly the way rational conversation intersects with random non sequiturs such as, “I feel much better after that banana.”

Yet Bennett’s motives for writing the play are problematically obvious. His primary targets are the callous managers who mange the caring professions, which is hardly revelatory. And then there’s today’s climate of intolerance, embodied by the Indian-born Dr Valentine (Sacha Dhawan) who, despite serving the UK well as an NHS doctor, is about to be kicked out of his adopted country. Both themes are no doubt deeply felt by the author but neither are explored in any depth.

Although a plot twist generates much-needed tension towards the end of the first half, it dissipates quickly in the second, leaving us to ponder the play’s message — that old people are valuable, too, you know.

Thanks to Hytner’s direction it’s never less than eminently watchable. But the way in which the old are shown in a pallid, permanently seated row, and then dancing in a kind of imagined rolling back of the years, feels deeply patronising. And, when the dancing stops, they go too gentle into that good night for my liking.

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