Allelujah! at Bridge Theatre
In less talented hands, Allelujah! would feel nauseously overcrowded. Set within the geriatric ward of Bethlehem Hospital (abbreviated to “The Beth”), there is an abundant ensemble of characters who are able to take up the entire width of the gaping stage at the Bridge Theatre. This cast consists of doctors, nurses, patients, family of the patients, a documentary film crew – even the gormless work experience has a part to play.
In addition to this is the politically-charged plot, where the medical institution is threatened with closure by a patient’s son Colin (Samuel Barnett), who works at the health ministry and makes it his young life’s mission to close down hospitals. Then there is the production’s most sympathetic character Dr Valentine (played with such gentle cool-headedness by Sacha Dhawan), a young immigrant who’s worried about the status of his visa. And on top of it all are the existential realities that the patients must bear, often escaping through musical interludes (enjoyably choreographed by Arlene Phillips) that look as if filmed in Technicolour Panavision.
If this wasn’t written by Alan Bennett, the play would be a congested disaster – but he makes it work within in the just-reasonable bracket of 150 minutes while giving most of the characters room to breathe. They seem to spend days discussing themselves in hilarious and poignant dialogues of the sort that the playwright is famous for. There are times when the political points are slightly on-the-nose in their execution, but Bennett is careful to wrap them around the patients.
And despite the singing, dancing and communal humour, there’s still that inevitable darkness poking through underneath. There’s a moment when Dr Valentine recites the Charles Causley poem Ten Types of Hospital Visitor to the patients on the ward, pricking the ear of ex-schoolmaster Ambrose (Simon Williams) who sombrely dictates the final line: “The tenth visitor/ Is not usually named”. Death hangs over the drama like a virus ready to kill, but the hospital-dwellers make the best of a bleak situation. Comedy battles the gloom, and Bennett always makes sure we have something to laugh about.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Allelujah! is at Bridge Theatre from 11th July until 29th September 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.