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A CurtainUp London Review

"They talk about the jaws of death but it's not death that has jaws, it's life." — Ambrose
The Cast in Allelujah (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Alan Bennett has a knack of observing the idiosyncratic British public and relating his observations in the most affectionate and amusing way. I remember him talking in his Yorkshire accent, all short A's rather than the longer Southern English A, so bath rather than baaath. He was talking about the notorious doctor, Harold Shipman, a general practitioner in Manchester who had murdered over 250 of his elderly patients. Bennett was on a bus when he heard two women talking about Dr Shipman before the scandal broke and the serial killer was unmasked. The conversation went like this, "Dr Shipman is a really good doctor but you don't last." Note: Last with a short A. These women had noticed how often Shipman's patients died but still asserted that he was a good doctor. So a conversation on a bus may have provided the inspiration for Bennett's latest play about the National Health Service which is celebrating 75 Allelujah! is Hytner and Bennett's tenth collaboration. In 2004 I reviewed the collaboration of Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner which was the tremendously successful The History Boys here. They had collaborated on The Madness of King George in 1991, and The Lady in the Van was one of my first reviews for Curtain Up here. Nicholas Hytner became Artistic Director of the National Theatre in 2003 where The History Boys was produced and would continue with the biography of WH Auden in The Habit of Art hereand a play starring Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett about a stately home on its uppers, People here. People wasn't brilliantly received and it hasn't always been an easy ride for Nicholas Hytner when his chosen star to play Auden, the wonderfully wrinkled Michael Gambon had to forego the role and Richard Griffiths took over at short notice.

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr designed the theatre under an apartment complex close to Tower Bridge on London's South Bank. The Bridge Theatre has to be self funding unlike their previous venture The National Theatre, so it is essential to attract audiences.

Allelujah! stars two of the original cast of sixth formers from The History Boys, Sacha Dhawan as Dr Valentine and Samuel Barnett as Colin, a business consultant and advisor to Whitehall staff responsible for the Health Service, who is visiting his father Joe (Jeff Rawle) in "The Beth", Bethlehem Hospital. Dr Valentine, who has changed his Asian name to one that is more pronounceable, works in this small general hospital in the North of England where many of the wards, in an attempt at modernisation, have had their names changed from the likes of Montgomery and Disraeli to Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey and Vera Lynn. The patients love the intimacy of the small general hospital but the government is focussed on larger units with distinct specialisms. We hear different cities have got lungs, kidneys and liver. "The Beth", which is threatened with closure can't win because even when it makes a profit, the business view is that it should be hived off to the private sector.

We meet the patients on Dusty Springfield Geriatric Ward: Joe the ex miner with lung disease, Ambrose (Simon Williams) the refined school teacher, and an assorted team of largely indistinguishable elderly women, Hazel (Sue Wallace), Mary (Julia Foster), Lucille (Gwen Taylor) and Mavis (Patricia England).

The patients break into song many times; I counted eleven (see the song list below). The singalong opportunities revive well loved songs but struck me as padding for a play that was losing direction. My research has turned up an interview with Hytner which revealed that Allelujah! possesses "a freewheeling theatricality" and like The History Boys it will have song and dance and roaming energy except it's the over-eighties doing the song and dance rather than 18 year olds." So one person's freewheeling is another's lack of direction.

Samuel Barnett's character of business consultant Colin contrasts not just with his socialist ex-miner father, Joe, but also with Dr Valentine. Colin's first scene has him on a mobile phone complaining about an ambulance cutting him up while he was on a bicycle. It is that self centred, selfish approach which makes us all laugh at his lack of humanity and his arrogance that his journey is more important than the ambulance's.

The gap between Colin and Joe is not just generational and of lifestyle, but political and about the North South divide and sexual orientation as well. Colin and Joe briefly come together when Colin is persuaded by his father to sing for the ward and Samuel Barnett reminds us of his angelic voice from The History Boys in a brilliant performance of the song, made famous by contralto Kathleen Ferrier, "Blow the Wind Southerly". Colin is acknowledging his father's influence for introducing him to a local choir.
Bob Crowley's design uses sliding partitions to change parts of the hospital. The brick parapet above has Bethlehem Hospital carved in stone and the beds and wheelchairs, paraphernalia and uniforms look authentic.

Mr and Mrs Earnshaw (Yes Wuthering Heights) (Duncan Wisbey and Rosie Ede) have placed their senile mother Mrs Maudsley (Jacqueline Clarke) in the hospital for her gallstones. She repeatedly shouts, "It was my house!" She has signed a deed of covenant, which if she lives for seven years after signing, will mean they do not pay inheritance tax on the value of the house.

Deborah Findlay is excellent as the longstanding sister on the ward, Sister Gilchrist, reaching retirement age and the sort of experience the National Health Service relies on. It would be spoiling to reveal more of the storyline but I can say that I wasn't convinced by so many NHS tabloid news scandals converging in just one unlucky hospital. I did however like device of the team making a publicity video about "The Beth" and their impact. While many laughed at the disasters, others in the audience shuddered at how close they are to infirmity and geriatric care.
Song List
All sung by patients except Blow the Wind Southerly sung by Colin
  • Yours
  • You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want To Do It)
  • 'A' You're Adorable
  • Love and Marriage
  • Good Morning
  • Blow the Wing Southerly
  • Good Golly, Miss Molly
  • On the Sunny Side of the Street
  • I Can Give You the Starlight
  • Congratulations
  • Side by Side
  • Get Happy

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Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Jeff Rawle, Deborah Findlay, Sacha Dhawan, Samuel Barnett, Peter Forbes, Gwen Taylor, Simon Williams, Julia Foster.
With: Jacqueline Chan, Jacqueline Clarke, Patricia England, Colin Haigh, Anna Lindup, Louis Mahoney, Cleo Sylvestre, Sue Wallace, Manish Gandhi, Richie Hart, Nicola Hughes, Gary Wood, Sam Bond, Rosie Ede, Nadine Higgin, David Moorst, Duncan Wisbey.
Design: Bob Crowley
Choreographer: Arlene Phillips
Sound Design: Mike Walker
Lighting Design: Natasha Chivers
Music: George Fenton
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0333 320 0052
Booking to 29th September 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th July 2018 performances at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1 2SG (Rail /Tube: London Bridge)
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