And thou, most kind and gentle death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him, Alleluya!
FOR the past half-century, since writing sketches for That Was the Week That Was, Alan Bennett’s distinctive voice has been gently prodding the institutions of post-war Britain. More recently, he has found it a nation that he cannot always recognise.
In Forty Years On, he attacked the sort of third-rate provincial boarding schools where foreign serving officers dumped their sons, and in A Question of Attribution he sniped at the wilful blindness of MI6 and of successive governments to public accountability. Many saw The History Boys as a plea for the restoration of grammar schools, and in People he had much to say about the “heritage industry” and Laura Ashley.
His satires always capture their target, but they appear as sporadic and incidental as Saudi attacks on the Yemen; widely reported at the time, they are either misunderstood or ignored by the British public, who feel somewhat compromised. The laughter is uncomfortable, given a few minutes’ afterthought.
In his latest play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, Bennett turns his guns on the NHS, setting the play in the geriatric ward of a general hospital with a veritable chorus line-up from The Calendar Girls. If this was David Hare (think for a moment of Racing Demon, Pravda, or Murmuring Judges), heads might roll and more questions might be asked in Parliament; but it is not Bennett’s intention to flay with the scalpel.
Future A-level students will no doubt point out that this play was written when Jeremy Hunt was Health Secretary, but they will need to be reminded that it was penned before it became common knowledge that a former Home Secretary had agreed new procedures to disadvantage the “Windrush generation”.
Among those on the ward, a Yorkshire pitman has predictable views on the miners’ strike, whereas his son, brilliantly observed by Samuel Barnett, is the one gay in the village who escaped to the Smog to become an adviser to the Government. The chairman of the Hospital Trust (Peter Forbes) makes the most out of showing how Thatcher’s ideology turned public healthcare into an industry in which managers with no medical training, and even less compassion, can (still) take over for personal profit.
The play is sad rather than nostalgic. That has something to do with the late Charles Causley’s last and “not usually named” visitor’s arrival in the poem “Ten Types of Hospital Visitor”, which Buxton Orr set to music, and which is usefully printed in the programme.
But it also has to do with the paradigm shift that has occurred across the nation in Bennett’s lifetime, with the loss of compassion and the growth of political indifference, leading him to rail against a country that he, and many of us, no longer recognise.
Asked what he was in life, the wheelchair-bound Ambrose Hammersley (Simon Williams) says that he is a former schoolmaster who taught English Language and Literature. He is helping the ward doctor (Sacha Dhawan), of whom he is fond, to study for one of David Blunkett’s notorious Citizenship tests. I forgot to ask the headteacher of the Brent school who was seated next to me how many in the audience she might reckon would know what an enclitic or tmesis is.
Secretaries of State who see privatisation and closure as the inevitable consequences of living in a market economy need to be reminded that unexplained deaths will always occur, whether or not the likes of Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay at her most compelling) are decorated for long service.
The play runs out at two hours and ten minutes. Earlier the same day, I had waited as long with a friend to be taken down into theatre after his hospital appointment. But that was in a private clinic.
Allelujah! by Alan Bennett runs at the Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London SE1, until 29 September. Box office: phone 0333 320 0051. bridgetheatre.co.uk