Tom Sutcliffe is disappointed with the latest play by Alan Bennett
I first saw Alan Bennett in late 1960 when he was teaching history at Magdalen in a modest way, having got his Oxford First in that subject. He was pointed out to me as he processed with other dons to the high table for a ‘formal hall’ dinner. Dudley Moore, another of the Beyond The Fringe fab four, had been Magdalen organ scholar until 1959, and his built-up shoe for pedal work remained in Dr Bernard Rose’s organ loft as a memento. Beyond the Fringe spawned the age of satire and the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was with David Frost, as well as the magazine Private Eye, and eventually Monty Python, Dud & Pete and much, much more. Those times were before ‘stand-up comedy’ and the memory of the Suez fiasco being recent enough for Brits to accept unrestrained self-criticism ladled out with comic flair as nothing less than we deserved (I’d argue Brexit only became conceivable as our return to economic success—thanks to EU membership—restored traditional British ideas above our station.) Bennett’s flair for gentle satire as a diaryist and playwright made him into that rare thing, a ‘national treasure.’ By contrast, Jonathan Miller’s theatre and opera career and his polymath brilliance ruled him out of that category. Cleverness has always been suspect in the UK. Today Bennett is sole survivor of all that affectionate cynicism.
In 1968, Bennett’s bitingly hilarious Forty Years On opened at the Apollo Theatre with John Gielgud as headmaster. It was an irresistible send-up of Britain’s imperial past and belief in our national virtue. Bennett’s revue in many ways anticipated Lindsay Anderson’s sexier, more serious (and Brechtian) film if…. out the same year and winner at the Cannes Film Festival. I rustled up a large group of flatmates and friends to join me at the Apollo for a second visit. The jokes were based on history of which many of us were somewhat ignorant, but their delivery was irresistible.
People go to almost all Bennett’s plays poised to laugh. He has a quirky way of looking at how things are which people of a certain age (mine and older) seem to find accurate enough to be entertaining. But just as I found David Hare’s Racing Demon no laughing matter because its view of the CofE was so superficial, so Alan Bennett’s secure confidence about British follies six years ago in People (his play about the National Trust), and now again in Allelujah! (about euthanasia, Alzheimer’s and the NHS) seems to me actually quite grimly and unpleasantly truthless. In fact Bennett in his dotage has become conventional and unperceptive in so much of what he is saying. He was always content to exploit clichés—which have their comic angle—but the way he assembles his vehicles is now lazy and unrevealing. Retired National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, on whom Bennett relies to straighten out muddles and stand up floundering complexities, does not endow the acting with too much reality. The new Bridge Theatre is not a lovely building: overly large and the wrong shape, and with many seats uncomfortably positioned, but with a tally of spectators that guarantees profits for popularity, which is the principle Hytner adopted at the National (though a subsidized national institution should have other crucial concerns).
If there is anything much to be said seriously or entertainingly about the fact that we age—some of us lose our marbles, and we all die, often getting ill on the way—this is not it. Allelujah! shows a certain stiff-upper-lipness about the fundamentals, but very little appropriate feeling for what it may be like to care for those passing through the process (which Bennett himself, healthy and happy at 84, is not yet requiring). My big sister Jane is now 81 and has Alzheimer’s, and has depended for nearly a decade on two wonderfully different and affectionate carers. One is English, the other Polish, both are Roman Catholic but who have not engaged in giving her a helping hand towards the next world as Bennett’s Sister Gilchrist does with a succession of suitable candidates and no concern. But Jane in a ‘care home’ (which tends to mean ‘don’t-care-home’) would almost certainly have lost what makes her loss of communication and self-help tolerable—classical music on the radio and consistent kindness and concern.
The audience when I went along on a £35 ticket for a terrible seat seemed full of people who might well have been in the play. The activities in which the Beth’s geriatric ward seemed to engage to keep clients cheerful would not be seen or heard in most NHS hospitals doing a good job, but care homes go in for this sort of stuff. Allelujah! is a musical as well as a play, and sometimes the music is an occasion for dancing, all of which helps audiences have a mindlessly good time while not digging deeply into various topics lightly touched on. None of the characters really gets enough space or time to come alive and make a case, though Samuel Barnett as one patient’s slightly alienated gay son (a rich management consultant) did what he could. Jeff Rawle as his dad—doomed to Sister Gilchrist’s death-by-injection when work experience Andy (David Moorst) pours his urine all over his clothes—was equally lively. But mostly Bennett’s thoughts about local small hospitals were nonsense. The NHS has better new ideas for GPs, though Bennett and Hytner know what can make audiences giggle and enjoy!