Is this would-be state-of-the-nation opus about the crisis within the NHS system by the estimable Alan Bennett meant to be a sober issue-oriented analysis or a knees-up, savagely farcical send-up of governmental hubris and disdain for the common people? A bit of both, but not enough of either, if this farrago is the result. Moment to moment, the script lurches clumsily from the sentimental to the polemical to the comical, without ever finding a proper way to integrate its many moods.
A group of elderly patients, many of whom are not gravely ill, while away their days in the geriatric ward of a Yorkshire medical facility founded on archaic (so the play would describe) principles such as compassion and assistance (most have been abandoned there by relatives happy to be unburdened of them, casualties as well of a lack of any sort of comprehensive social care system). Often, they break into song and dance, belting out old standards, in defiance of age and position, of being forgotten.
Singled out for particular vituperation is the civil servent son of one garrulous patient, ostensibly onsite to belatedly visit his father but actually there to facilitate the closure of the hospital for his Whitehall boss in a streamlining strategy; the grasping administrator, wholly self-serving and cowardly, consumed with entitlement; and a film crew hired to record the campaign to celebrate the integrity of the community institution who are more interested in ferreting out lurid and salacious detail of its operations. Homicide is suggested, just before the interval, as the inevitable byproduct of a ferocious targets-driven agenda (available beds become the symbol of ultimate success or failure in this environment).
This is a crass system that steadily consumes and erodes any idealism or energy that may have initially motivated its workers. An immigrant doctor whose genuine concern for and interest in his patients is unassailable, is eventually called before a board to determine his right to residency (shades of possible calamitous implications to come next March when Brexit kicks in), which leads to a rather bizarre, bewildering reprimand addressed straight to the audience, a scolding call for Britain to wake up and reassess its priorities- a sudden, strange harangue that stops the momentum dead.
With over 25 characters squaring off for space on stage, it’s impossible to know any character expect in the broadest terms, the constant wicked (albeit clever) wit the most overweening personality trait. I feel that no one involved really wanted to alienate the audience, either with too much anger or militancy, rather settling for a cosy, anodyne middlebrow ground. The script feels both rushed and overstuffed, as if one or two drafts away from true refinement. Curious, given all the professionals involved in the development. Allelujah continues through 29 September