People, but if Allelujah! isn't the 84-year-old's best-ever work* it certainly doesn't disappoint. The second thing that needs saying is that underneath a hugely entertaining surface this is an unapologetically angry, political play. For all that AB has a reputation as a cosy, cuddly National Treasure who doesn't like being called a National Treasure, his work has always had this sharpness - the quintessential Englishness† of his work always tempered with anger and frustration at what he sees eroding his idea of what makes the country worth celebrating. In Allelujah! that anger is never not tangibly bubbling under the comedy and tragedy of his epic hospital story.
It's what gives the heart to a play that's full of classic AB eccentricity and one-liners, and a nostalgia that's used to cutting effect. With Nicholas Hytner, his go-to director for nearly thirty years, having upped sticks from the National, AB goes with him to the Bridge, where Bob Crowley has built The Bethlehem, a local Yorkshire hospital under threat of closure.
In particular the geriatric ward which, in a system of figures and targets, is paradoxically what makes the hospital seem successful, because its higher likelihood of patient death means it has a fast turnaround, freeing up beds for others. It's ruled with a rod of iron by the old-fashioned Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay,) whose main preoccupation is with keeping the patients, who are more likely than most to soil themselves, clean, rather than just covering up the smell with antiseptic. It's a focus that gives some little bit of dignity back to the patients, although this probably isn't high on her reasons for it - she finds cleaning up after everyone a drain on the staff's time, and in fact keeps a private list shaming those patients more prone to accidents.
More popular are Nurse Pinkney (Nicola Hughes,) who likes to foster a community spirit with a ward choir, and Doctor Valentine (Sacha Dhawan,) who's ploughing through with his work despite the shadow hanging over him, of a hearing to determine whether he can remain in the country. The cast includes a number of senior actors filling up the wards, as well as a couple in more central roles playing older than they are: Jeff Rawle is Joe, a former miner whose damaged lungs have regular relapses, and whose son has cycled up from London to visit him. But Colin (Samuel Barnett) isn't just there as a visitor - he's a consultant for the Health Minister (with whom he may also be having a relationship) and, still bearing a grudge against the place he grew up in, is gleeful about the possibility of closing hospitals in general, and this one in particular.
Though AB does flesh him out a bit more, Colin is by far the least sympathetic character (and this is in a play where, without being spoilery, some characters have pretty dark secrets,) cold-bloodedly calculating the ways the hospital can be closed and its services moved to a larger, more efficient and profitable facility, without the personal touch he seems to actively oppose. Margaret Thatcher may be dead but AB hasn't forgotten or forgiven her, openly tracing a line back to her that leads to people like Colin and the dismissal of everything - right down to life and death - as able to be boiled down to figures and efficiency.
There's a panoramic scope to Allelujah! that takes in Dr Fletcher (Gary Wood,) so desperate for beds for his patients he keeps trying to get tips from Sister Gilchrist on when one of her patients is likely to die; Mr Earnshaw (Duncan Wisbey,) who keeps badgering the staff to keep his mother-in-law alive just long enough that he doesn't have to pay inheritance tax on her house; and Ambrose (Simon Williams,) a patient always talking about the visitor he's looking forward to expecting. In keeping with "Ten Types of Hospital Visitor," a Charles Causley poem references by the play, nobody mentions out loud that the visitor is death. In among the patients, including an old woman nursing a baby doll is admittedly a bit of a cheap shot for the heart-strings but what can I say, it worked for me.
A further sub-plot sees a local news team (Sam Bond and Nadine Higgin) following daily life in the hospital for a feature, and this becomes crucial when the play throws in a big pre-interval twist. In other words there's a hell of a lot going on in Allelujah! inevitably meaning some elements are better-developed than others. As well as a love letter to the NHS the play is also a lament at the erosion of English decency in a wider way; it's not just the patronising and humiliating immigration interview the lovable Dr Valentine is put through that tells you where AB stands on the rise of nationalism - the playwright who finds the soul of Englishness in sugar bowls and cream crackers laments that a national pride built on self-effacement and the little things is being replaced by a meaningless pride in the simple fact of nationality.
But there's also a lot of trademark wit and heart (as well as a surprising amount of song and dance) that means the most brutal attack on present-day Britain's failings is couched in a genuinely warm, entertaining few hours full of quotable jokes. It makes for what would be one of the plays of the year even without its not-so-hidden depths. AB may have some harsh truths to tell, but they come with an ultimate faith in humanity that keeps hope alive.
Allelujah! by Alan Bennett is booking until the 29th of September at the Bridge Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
*and regardless of whether you think The History Boys actually is where that title should go; personally I'll always have great affection for Talking Heads
†ironically, there is nothing more quintessentially English than the word "quintessentially"