When Alan Bennett’s name is uttered, the man’s sing-song northern intonations tend to hum through one’s mind. Often blunt and acerbic, it is the voice which narrates the 2015 motion picture adaptation Lady in the Van and one which ultimately runs as a nervous system through every play he writes. Bennett is a dramatic style unto himself. Since becoming an instant hit at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival along with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook, he has gone on to garner an ever-growing fruitful career spanning across theatre, TV and film with his kitchen sink drama/comedy merge.
Allelujah! is Bennett’s first play in six years and what better way to showcase it than in the chic new Bridge Theatre. The play certainly packs out the auditorium, with the audience already on side to delight in some Bennett wit.
However, this much anticipated piece feels a tad flabby. The story follows ‘The Bethlehem’, a ‘cosy’ hospital which serves people in the local community from birth to death. The place, if a little shabby, is clean, profiting and vibrant, with one of the nurses insisting on running a choir on the geriatric ward.
However, like every hospital in our current political climate, a threat of its closure is ever present. This threat seems fairly distant as the play plods along slightly laboriously for 40 minutes, trawling through characters whose stories aren’t dwelled upon for long enough to quite win our hearts. The end of act one is when this warm play turns up the heat when one of the characters cracks. The rest of the piece is a wait to see whether the truth of this deception comes to light.
The cast number reaches almost 30, with a lot of characters saying little to nothing at all. It is often a symptom of bulging production budgets to be tempted by a large cast to make things more naturalistic, however it feels detrimental to a piece such as this one, blurring the direction of the story and who the protagonist actually is. Many of the characters, particularly the elderly ones seem to be created for a few one liners and spend the rest of the time existing in the background. Perhaps this is what Bennett aims to illustrate as society’s views of the elderly, but whether this comes across is questionable.
The set is simple and acutely realistic with large tall walls painted to look worn and shabby. Despite the abundant cast, the Bridge Theatre stage is a large one and the constant mention of the hospital feeling ‘cosy’ doesn’t quite translate when the set is as sparse as it is.
The acting is top notch with a smorgasbord of seasoned actors. Sacha Dhawan is particularly charming as affectionate Dr. Valentine and Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist nails the bitter drawl of a nurse wiping bottoms and dealing with difficult patients for 25 years.
Undoubtably, the highlights of the play are when the elderly take the stage to sing and dance in numbers choreographed by none other than Arlene Phillips. It is gorgeous to see the characters bust out numbers such as ‘Love and Marriage’, ‘Congratualtions’ and ‘Side by Side’. A buzz is created in the audience doesn’t quite trickle into the other scenes.
When Allelujah! ended I felt fond of the characters and annoyed at the ruthless gentrification of the UK’s political climate. However, I couldn’t help but feel like there was potential for me to be completely in love with the characters and politically emboldened in pursuit of justice, had a few details about the show been tightened up.
Reviewed by Nicole Darrell-Batten
Photo: Manuel Harlan
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