As our National Health Service celebrates its 70th birthday, a new play has emerged providing a witty commentary on the state of the NHS. Allelujah! is the newest play by Alan Bennett and his first since 2012. Readers may be familiar with Bennett’s previous works The History Boys, and The Lady in the Van. The later was turned into a movie staring Dame Maggie Smith in 2015. Allelujah! is Bennett‘s 10th stage collaboration with director Nicholas Hytner.
The story revolves around The Beth, an old-fashioned cradle-to-grave hospital serving a town on the edge of the Pennines. When it is threatened with
closure due to an NHS efficiency drive, patients, staff and community rally around to fight for its survival. Sensing a story, a documentary crew arrives and follows the daily struggle to find beds on the Geriatric Ward. Throw in a nurse who believes patients should leave when medically fit, a puffed-up Chairman of the Hospital Board, a doctor who may be deported due to his immigration status, and a consultant to the health minister who is visiting his ill father. The question on everyone’s lips is: Will the hospital survive?
In his authors’ note Bennett says that the difference between a geriatric Ward and care home is not always obvious because a patient on a geriatric ward who has recovered cannot always be discharged since there is no where to discharge them to or no relative willing or able to care, and as such they stay in geriatric wards and become ‘bed-blockers’. In the current financial climate and ageing population, this topic is highly relevant.
Bennett’s play provides commentary about the state of the NHS: the under-resourced services, the de-valuing of professionals, the focus on meeting targets, and the immigration status that has many workers wondering about their futures. Also of note is, as Bennet phrases it, the “non-presence of visitors”. I was particularly interested in the poem cited in the play, ‘Ten Types of Hospital Visitor’ by Charles Causley.
Twenty-five actors play the patients, doctors, nurses and visitors. A fraction too many perhaps as we cannot develop relationships with or see character development, and I feel some of the actors could have doubled up as character. Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist is particularly notable for her tough-love, no-nonsense approach to patient care although her story-arc feels too unrealistic. Sacha Dhawan stands outs as the friendly, loveable Dr Valentine as does Jeff Rawle, who plays a resident of the ward.
A number of songs are used as characters celebrate small moments in their life, reflect on the past and focus on their future. These include You Made Me Love You, On the Sunny Side of the Street and Side by Side. The song choices reflect the age of the patients on the ward as did the choreography by Arlene Phillips. You couldn’t help but smile a little in these lighter moments.
Given it is set in a hospital, the stage has a number of sliding panels that are used to depict the different areas of the ward. At 2 hours 35 minutes including a 20 minute interval the play felt rather long, which was not helped by some scenes not flowing into each other and scene changes feeling a little chunky.
Allelujah! is being performed at the Bridge Theatre, which was founded by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr on leaving the National Theatre. Running from 11th July to 29th September. 2018. Performances are Monday to Saturday 7.45pm, and Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm. Ticket prices range from £15-£65 with reduced prices for previews and matinees, and premium tickets available.
Overall, a good play with strong acting and some important messages marred by improbable plots and a lack of focus.
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Written by Caitlin Neal