It is clear from the opening lines that Allelujah! is the work of Alan Bennett. That wry Northern humour is unmistakable. He may be 83, but Bennett remains as active as ever on the writing front. He is also, in this particular case, out to make a political statement too.
Set within the wards of a community hospital on the edge of the Pennines, Allelujah! could be described as a kind of love letter to the NHS. It follows the daily travails of patients and staff on the geriatric ward which, along with the rest of the hospital, is earmarked for closure. Despite regularly meeting targets, it seems that amalgamation into a brand-new regional health centre, as part of an efficiency drive, is inevitable. And there is a dark secret that is about to be revealed that won’t help in the fight for its survival.
What is most striking about Allelujah! is its cast of characters. They are all charming and easily likeable. The patients especially are wonderful creations, brought to life by a talented cast that includes Gwen Taylor (Heartbeat, Coronation Street) and Jeff Rawle (Hollyoaks, Harry Potter). You can tell that they are having a ball playing such funny and whimsical people, and in the process showing that age should be no barrier within the acting profession. There has been a lot spoken recently, and rightly so, about the need to support young, up-and-coming talent. But it mustn’t be forgotten that the older generation too deserve representation. Bennett delivers on this and more, for there is a serious point being made among that dry and acerbic dialogue.
It is the treatment of older people in our society that he finds most wanting. Using the Indian heritage of Dr Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), for example, he manages to emphasise the stark contrast between the two cultures’ attitudes towards the elderly. In some respects, this eclipses any political standpoint. It is a cultural problem. Yet, by highlighting civil servant Colin’s (Samuel Barnett) preference for privatisation and capitalism, Bennett seems to suggest that these contribute towards, rather than stem, the problem.
Ultimately though, it is difficult to ascertain the real views of Bennett regarding such matters on account of the competing views of the characters who, together, make up an ensemble cast. There is no lead protagonist. In fact, the closest we come to one is towards the end, when both Dhawan and Deborah Findlay (Sister Gilchrist), in turn, perform a monologue a lá Talking Heads. This is classic Bennett, and is where we find the play at its most powerful. And when Dhawan addresses the audience directly, it is also when it is most explicitly political.
The dialogue is certainly what drives this show. The set is simple, the lighting used only sporadically for effect. The musical numbers, peppered throughout, are wonderfully choreographed. The music itself is perfectly chosen. What Bennett leaves you with here is a smile on your face. It is a play to be enjoyed, even as it takes some dark turns and makes some thought-provoking points. Allelujah! is, for me, an excellent addition to Alan Bennett’s canon. It is a show that is certainly worth spending some time with.
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Originally written as part of the Young Critics North Wales scheme.