And what were you in life?
Where has the affection in Bennett gone? – this is what I asked myself during the showy song-and-dance finale of his latest work Allelujah, which left me puzzlingly cold, despite the pretence of feel-good jocundity.
The play works as a companion piece to Bennett’s most popular work The History Boys: take an ensemble of characters at a pivotal stage of life, introduce an upcoming conflict, enter character in a place of responsibility, character abuses responsibility. In The History Boys, it is a group of young boys heading for their Oxbridge admission who are sexually abused by a teacher. Here, it is a group of geriatrics heading towards a hospital closure who are murdered by a nurse. Sex and death; young and old. But whereas the former is warm, complex, and witty, the latter is coarse, simplistic, and not nearly funny enough.
The cast are good. The roles are bland. Each pastel-clad geriatric is representative of a single trait: here’s the flirty one, the ditsy one, the grumpy one… here Bennett seems to run out and unfortunately the rest of his multitudinous grey-haired army are (mind the pun) shades of grey. Allelujah suffers from too many characters, one feels that the cast size could be halved without losing a single thing, or a single laugh. And what few interesting characters do rise to the surface, Bennett’s writing shoves them back under the water to drown again.
Why is it that Sacha Dhawan’s well-meaning immigrated Doctor is a bit too hands-on with his patients? Bennett never tells us, but instead gives us an on-the-nose and rather baffling – given the previous action of the play – speech from him about the state of our nation. Suddenly the character is a politician, words are put in his mouth which shouldn’t be there, and only Dhawan’s finely-pitched delivery can keep them from falling utterly flat.
Simon Williams is an all-too-brief delight as the curmudgeonly but sharp-minded Ambrose, and all the pathos of a deteriorating schoolmaster, once revered and now unable to walk, is left untouched, unexplored. It is deeply unsatisfying, particularly when Williams’ performance is one of the real joys of the play.
Samuel Barnett is a rather unexpected choice as the bicycle-riding Tory – and, yet, he is very good, even if the role is hackneyed. Barnett has an exceptional singing voice, too, as we know from his Posner – and I am certainly glad that was put to use. One of the better moments.
But Deborah Findlay as the witchy-murder nurse from hell is all boo-hiss and irredeemable scowls. I am baffled as to whether I am supposed to feel sympathy towards her – because I did not. Not one bit. Hector in The History Boys is a criminal, of course, but he is tragic in his own way – his plight cannot help but tug at your heart strings. Here, I was left cold, confused, with a bitter taste in my mouth.
The Bridge Theatre are certainly proud of this new Bennett play – but surely a new London venue should dedicate itself to actual innovation? It’s a new Bennett play, sure, but – sadly – Bennett feels outdated. This surely isn’t a result of Bennett himself, as The History Boys only 10 years ago feels just as fresh now. But Allelujah certainly feels dated. The set, dully naturalistic. The music, completely forgettable. The direction, fine. The Bridge Theatre needs to dedicate itself to vigour. Allelujah hasn’t given it this. Julius Caesar was the closest they’ve got so far.
Some love letter to the NHS this is – the spirit, the solidarity, the values it was built on in 1946, all that I expected from Bennett’s new play are notably absent, and what’s left is hollow, cold, ageing and nearing death. No sunny dance number clap-along flourish at the end is going to save this piece from its frigid amorality. Oh, no.