“Heaven is like Heathrow airport, there’s bound to be a VIP lounge.”
Alan Bennett is back with his new play, ‘Allelujah!’, playing at the Bridge Theatre. It has been six years since he released his last autobiographical play, ‘Cocktail Sticks’. However, it has been worth the wait, for ‘Allelujah!’ will be sure to delight his devoted fans and the newcomers waiting to join the Bennett Bonanza wagon. It is a musical extravaganza that encapsulates Bennett’s warm Yorkshire humour, whilst possessing a satirical tone and quiet anger at how the elderly are treated in England; the conflict Margaret Thatcher caused and the toils of being a non-native Englishman.
The Yorkshire born Bennett has been a well- known and much loved figure since his comedy show, ‘Beyond the Fringe’ was played at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1960. Since then, his hilarious, historical and powerful plays including ‘The History Boys’, ‘The Madness of George III’ and his first West End play, ‘Forty Years On’ has delighted the nation, both in theatres and in live streaming of theatres in cinemas. Bennett’s dulcet Northern voice can be heard in families’ sitting rooms and cars through his popular audio books, including his readings of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’. His talents also extend into the film world, with his terrific film adaption of ‘The History Boys’ and his script for the ‘Lady in the Van’.
The play shows the dichotomy between how the elderly are respected in Valentine’s native India compared to England
The legacy of ‘The History Boys’ has not died, for some of the cast have reunited in ‘Allelujah’. Samuel Barnett and Sacha Dhawan are no strangers and their chemistry was reflected in the play, despite the fact that Barnett is trying to close down the well-loved hospital ‘The Beth’, whilst Dhawan, the doctor tries to uphold it. The cast were not the only ones to be reunited. ‘Allelujah!’ saw the collaboration of Nicholas Hynter, the director of the play and Alan Bennett as the writer. Bennett and Hynter have had a long working relationship, for which the viewers soak up their talent.
In an interview, Hynter stated that the play is about “old age” and said “Alan can see everything from everyone’s point of view”. At the age of 84, it is unsurprising that Bennett has written a play about what life is really about and what it feels like to be a member of the elder generation. As one of the members of the hospital was being looked after by the formidable nurse, Sister Gilchrist, Mrs Maudsley then exclaimed, ‘When I got older, I thought I’d get my own way. Instead of which, I got arthritis’.
‘When I got older, I thought I’d get my own way. Instead of which, I got arthritis’.
However, Bennett not only sees himself in the elderly patients, he relates himself to Doctor Valentine, stating that ‘Valentine is a closer character to me’. For it is Valentine that shows genuine concern for the lack of emotional care that the patients receive. The play shows the dichotomy between how the elderly are respected in Valentine’s native India compared to England, where patients are less frequently visited by their families and seen as a burden to society. When Valentine is seen blowing kisses to the patients, he is told by Salter, the Hospital Chairman to be “Be more detached, more unfeeling. Remember you’re a doctor, be less human”.
It is this lack of humanity that is so apparent in the play. The elderly patients have now become figures and their death provides another bed space for a different patient needing care. When the patients are discharged, they no longer have anywhere to go, for there is no space in the council homes, or the care homes. Hynter stated that ‘Gradually a geriatric home becomes a care home’, highlighting that in some hospitals patients stay for longer than they should, for there is no where for them to go.
the NHS cannot afford to provide extra long care for the elderly patients
However, the NHS cannot afford to provide extra long care for the elderly patients. In the NHS a conflict has arisen between individuals wanting to care for the patients until they die but not having the money or facilities to do so. Colin’s question to Dr. Valentine, ‘If it is profitable, why isn’t it in the private sector?’ highlights that many think these cosy hospitals should be privatised but when they are made private, where do the elderly patients that cannot afford these hospitals but want to feel comfortable go?
This is not the only pressing question that arises from the play. Towards the end, Dr. Valentine asks, ‘What makes England so special?’ as he questions himself as to whether he is sad about being dismissed as a non- English native and therefore kicked out of England. He is clearly heartbroken that he cannot stay, saying “Open your arms England before it’s too late.’ However, in a society where the elderly are disregarded and immigrants are pushed out, are there any values and morals in England worth staying for?
‘What makes England so special?’
Whilst these serious questions are being asked to the audience, there is a light relief found in the joyous musical extravaganza that occurs throughout. The ‘Beth’ hospital choir graces our ears, as the elderly patients and the doctors sing musical anthems to the audience. The audience cannot help but feel total awe for the elderly cast that speedily move across the stage, as they throw their legs up in the air in a slick can-can. Arlene Phillips, one of the judges on ‘Strictly-Come-Dancing’, helped this musical vision come true, as she provided the choreography for the cast.
‘Allelujah!’ is a play that must not be missed. It combines the warmth of honey, the seriousness of politics and the music of gods that creates a hilarious masterpiece. One of the fundamental facts of life is that we will all get old, therefore the play will appeal to the young and old. However, we all hope that incontinence will not strike us. We come into the world as pure babies where our bottoms are wiped and exit the world as geriatrics where our bottoms are also wiped, unless as the patient Jacqueline stated, ‘I’m one of the aristocracy here, I can wipe my own bottom’.