Alan Bennett never expected old age to be a problem for him. His memoir Untold Stories revealed how, in 1997, he was not expected to survive a colorectal tumour that the oncologist, spookily tuning in to the playwright’s dialogue frequency, sized up as “an average rock bun”. Given the 84-year-old writer’s debt to surgery and chemotherapy, it’s appropriate that the latest product of late Bennett should treat the subject of medicine, and in particular the specialism of geriatrics.
Allelujah! is set in the author’s emotional heartland of the West Riding of Yorkshire, where Bethlehem Hospital, birthplace and likely deathbed of most locals, is threatened with closure in the latest NHS rationalisations. In a huge coincidence forgivable because of the kick it gives the play, one of the patients, an ex-miner whose lungs are losing their fight with coal dust, is the father of a key adviser to the health secretary. So, when the son comes up from London to see Dad, he is making two sorts of relative judgements.
As is both the pleasure and the risk of late work, the play reprises familiar tones and tricks. Having started as a stage stand-up (in Beyond the Fringe), Bennett retains the English comedian’s keen ear for the laugh-lines in famous names – a ward re-naming allows the observation that “Dusty Springfield used to be Princess Margaret” – and place names. Riffing on his general hospital’s failure to join the trend for specialist treatment centres, the chair of the health trust laments that “Huddersfield had nabbed the kidney, and Doncaster, of all places, the liver”. Bennett also extends his sideline as the TV critic among English dramatists. Allelujah! is the third of his recent plays – after The History Boys (2004) and People (2012) – to feature a satirical take on TV documentary.
The new play continues the devoted quotations from poetry and music that were a feature of previous collaborations with director Nicholas Hytner. At one point in Allelujah!, the dialogue pauses for a recitation of a Charles Causley poem. And, while an oddity of The History Boys was supposedly contemporary Leeds teenagers being devoted to Gracie Fields and other nostalgic crooners, such tunes arise naturally in Allelujah!, where the characters are Bennett’s age. Taking a cue from the curious neurological fact that people who struggle to speak and walk may still sing and dance smoothly, the Shirley Bassey Ward has a choir that therapeutically sings show tunes including “On the Sunny Side of the Street”.
What gives the play its heft, though, is that a writer often libelled as cosy crosses thematically to the dark side of the street. There is a strand of crime thriller, of a very topical kind, and, as Harold Pinter did, Bennett has become more politically angry with age. A shocking moment skewers the danger of imposing “targets” on medicine, and a sub-plot involving a young doctor brings two other burning topics – immigration and Brexit – in for treatment.
As a subject, the National Health Service often invites broader metaphor: hospital drama was used to take the political temperature in Peter Nichols’s stage play The National Health (1969), GF Newman’s TV series The Nation’s Health (1983) and Lindsay Anderson’s movie Britannia Hospital (1982). What those works did for the Wilsonian and Thatcherite eras, Bennett achieves for the May days.
Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre is somehow budgeting for the size of cast to which he had access at the National, and he sharply marshals 25 actors, with outstanding work from Deborah Findlay as a nurse with zero tolerance of incontinence, and Sacha Dhawan’s Dr Valentine, whose love for England and the NHS is cruelly unreciprocated.
The career graph for dramatists can be harsh, their last decades often containing little or nothing. Helped by having in Hytner a champion who runs theatres, Bennett has evaded that fate, and Allelujah! feels his brightest, tightest and most satisfying play since The Madness of George III (1991).
Allelujah! runs until 29 September
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special