An amalgamation of pathos and bathos has defined the work of Alan Bennett for over 50 years. With six years passing since his last play, his latest stage offering, Allelujah! contains all the familiar tropes – northern vernacular, doleful lamentations and darkly comedic undertones – that have become synonymous with one of England’s most underrated political artists.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner (in what will be his 10th collaboration with Bennett), the play is set on the failing geriatric ward of Yorkshire hospital, The Bethlehem. Threatened with closure, a local camera crew are invited into the establishment to document its fight for survival. Holding up a mirror to the privatisation of the NHS, Bennett continues the debate over the management of state health. In particular, the lack of care for the elderly. Bob Crowley’s bare set is a direct reflection of the lack of national health funding. Starched linen sheets bring attention to the issue of bed shortages and whitewashed walls slide clinically in and out to create the sterile hospital environment of each pristine ward block.
George Fenton has arranged a plethora of classic medleys to accompany Arlene Phillip’s lively choreographed sequences. Amiable yet haunting, each musical number acts as a reminder of the continued vitality and vibrancy found in the elderly, whilst masking the harsh reality on the trappings and decay of old age.
Cuts to health care budgets, combined with a growing elderly population has led to an exponential increase in the number of reported cases of abuse, and Allelujah teeters on the precipice of glorifying such scandals. The patient’s voices become secondary – the assortment of theatrical devices a distraction to further exploration of their stories. Furthermore, the inclusion of immigration and the withdrawal from the EU, whilst potent topics, stretch the plot too far. Nevertheless, with such a strong ensemble, Allelujah! is a delight to watch. Don’t be fooled by its slow, whimsical nature, underneath lurks a sharply political analysis of humanity and the state of elderly care.