Allelujah! It’s a new play by Alan Bennett. The nation’s most beloved dramatist is back after a six-year hiatus with a new work about the NHS. It’s at the 900-seat Bridge Theatre – the venue’s fifth production – in a staging directed by Bennett’s long-term collaborator Nick Hytner.
Bennett’s prolific, 50-year career as a playwright has delivered such classics as Forty Years On, Habeas Corpus, Kafka’s Dick, Single Spies and The Madness of George III. He and Hytner enjoyed an acclaimed association during the latter’s years at the National Theatre, producing the world premieres of The Lady in the Van, The History Boys and The Habit of Art.
This latest collaboration – the pair’s 10th – has an ensemble cast of 25, including Deborah Findlay, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Peter Forbes, Jeff Rawle, Julia Foster, Sue Wallace and Gwen Taylor. It runs until late September.
But can theatre’s most treasured National Treasure still do it at the ripe old age of 84? Does his double-act with Hytner still produce the goods? Do the critics still crave his gently withering wit?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Bennett has a penchant for putting great British institutions under the microscope – the monarchy, public schools, Oxbridge. With Allelujah!, he’s checking up on the NHS, presenting a cohort of elderly residents in a Yorkshire hospital’s geriatric ward, bed-blockers with nowhere else to go and nothing to do but sing, dance and wet the bed all day.
But how healthy is Bennett’s own writing? Well, the classic characteristics are all present and correct, with a bit of political anger thrown in as well.
“There are certain baseline expectations of a new play from Alan Bennett that mean he never disappoints,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “There will be some well-crafted jokes, often involving Yorkshire towns. There will be a sharp-eyed delineation of Englishness in all its eccentric variety. And there will also be some provocative political thinking, a sense that there are values worth clinging to that are in danger of being lost. All are present and correct in Allelujah!”
“Welcome to Bennett world, that Kodak Instamatic snapshot shire where aunties wear Liquorice Allsorts hats and every line seems written for a wheedling Leeds accent,” sighs Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★). “Old voices warbling wartime songs? A perfect fit. One of my games in Bennett is to await the mention of Timothy Whites chemist and houseware stores. Kerching.”
“A new Alan Bennett play is an event, and his latest, his first for six years, has his trademark quirkiness and warmth, an affection for eccentricity and a belief in the liberating power of music,” reasons Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★). “It’s also angry, animated by disgust at the erosion of the NHS and at the complacency of those who imagine that British institutions can survive without skilled and eager immigrants.”
Allelujah! is “a play full of quiet anger under its surface charm” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), while for Ben Brantley (New York Times) it’s “the most openly angry play of this master satirist’s career”.
“Bennett’s aptitude for sublime turns of phrase remains in rude good health,” adds Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), who thinks Allelujah! is “just what the doctor ordered”.
“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,” sums up Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “He remains a totally singular voice, and – crucially – extremely funny.”
“It’s remarkable how Bennett’s humour and faith in the decency of ordinary people manage to make this an ultimately high-spirited occasion,” concludes Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★).
The usual Bennettisms are all here then, but according to Matt Trueman (Variety), that’s not such a good thing. “The show is full of all the playwright’s signature elements – warmth, wry humor, faith in humankind – but at some point, you have to ask whether his idyllic, old England ever really existed,” he questions. “His nostalgia’s seductive, but mighty sentimental – and maybe, in this misty-eyed political climate, dangerous too.”
That’s only half the story, though. Although some reviewers are swept away in Bennett’s tide of twee Yorkshire sentimentalism and political ire, most have a dry enough eye to spot some pretty clunking problems with the play that are present too.
There’s a lot of complaints that the play lacks a narrative centre. “Focus comes and goes in an evening that feels every minute of its two-and-a-half-hours,” moans Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★).
“The play simply contains too many characters,” reckons Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★). “They don’t have room to grow and a great deal of the play feels like collage. Only Findlay’s grim nurse character is allowed a proper story arc, a proper inner life, but it feels too far-fetched.”
That’s not all. Cavendish complains that “contrivances are so glaring you may want to consult an eye-specialist” and that “you almost want to lie down in a darkened room just to recover from the sense of thematic overkill”.
“Allelujah! often feels oddly phlegmatic, as if sagging under the surfeit of everything it wants to say,” nods Brantley, while Hitchings sums up his problems pithily: “There’s a mix of thematic heavy-handedness and improbable contrivance, and the main characters are thinly drawn.”
Letts, meanwhile, finds fault with Bennett’s political position. “Why not tell the truth about modern hospital managers and their ghastly, patronising egalitarianism?” he pleads. “Allelujah! makes for a mildly amusing evening. But any electric charge we might have felt from the topicality of the plot is sacrificed to Mr Bennett’s artistic laziness.”
“Allelujah! is not without its moments but its hospital has all the credibility of a political slogan on the side of a bus,” chimes Trueman. “Rather, it’s an amalgamation of social and structural ills – from overpaid, self-important execs to unpaid interns with no self-respect – that exists entirely to confirm Bennett’s case, not to reflect the true state of the NHS. You sense the playwright, at 84, has swapped research for partisan reportage and maudlin memories of a past that never was.”
It’s not just Nick Hytner that Alan Bennett is working with again at the Bridge Theatre. Allelujah’s cast of 25 includes two original History Boys in the shape of Samuel Barnett and Sacha Dhawan. Is it a happy reunion?
Hytner’s direction is widely praised, largely for papering over the cracks in Bennett’s play. He “keeps everything going with ease and aplomb” according to Crompton, while for Holly Williams (iNews, ★★★) the marriage of writer and director is “as happy as ever”. Allelujah! is smoothly staged, beautifully observed,” she praises.
“Hytner directs with his marvellous instinct for the signature interplay between revue-like whimsy and political subversiveness in Bennett’s work,” asserts Taylor.
What about the performances? Well, perhaps because there’s no star turn as such, there’s scant mention of the cast in the write-ups. It’s Findlay’s Sister Gilchrist – a nurse with a plan – that gets mentioned the most.
Findlay is “wonderful” according to Brantley, while for Letts she’s “excellent” and for Taylor she invests her character with “a lovely dour, deceptive resignation”.
“The resignation in her voice says everything about the relentlessness of nursing, especially when it comes to the geriatric ward,” praises Bano. “Her job is dealing with sponge baths, incontinence, patients exposing themselves and being aggressive.”
“In a 25-strong cast there are some fine performances,” supplies Billington. “Deborah Findlay as the criminally efficient Sister, Peter Forbes as the self-aggrandising Salter, Samuel Barnett as the post-Thatcherite Colin and Sacha Dhawan as the precarious immigrant all impress. Among the patients Julia Foster as an ex-librarian, Jeff Rawle as the old miner and Simon Williams as the scholarly teacher stand out.”
“Hytner does a fine job,” concludes Maxwell. “The acting is excellent. Bob Crowley’s bare-stage set transforms swiftly into corridors and wards. It has its moments. Yet it’s a show that dawdles, then stops to jab you in the stomach with a point it wants to make.”
It’s good, but it’s not great. Alan Bennett’s first play for six years earns mixed reviews – a few four-star ratings, a few threes and the odd two.
His signature sentimentality and insight is augmented here by an evident anger at the shameful state of our NHS but, although director and cast are up to scratch, Allelujah! is marred by improbably plotting and a lack of focus.