The boys, well some of the History Boys alumni, are back and ready to take on another public service in Alan Bennett’s Allelujah! Debuting at none other than director and long-time Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre, Allelujah! is a sprawling love song and epitaph for the NHS; hilarious and heart-breaking in its depiction of life at a local geriatric ward. Bennett’s Allelujah! is swollen with messages about life, death, privatisation, the dangers of target-setting and the impact of a hostile immigration policy, with a few songs to boot. Overwhelmed by its attempt to paint a nuanced picture of the complex beast that is the NHS, Allelujah! is full of enjoyable meanders around the play’s main message, which don’t connect as seamlessly as one would like.

Allelujah! is the story of Bethlehem hospital, affectionately known as the Beth, near the Pennines which is under threat of closure as part of an NHS efficiency drive. The fight to save the Beth has attracted the attention of a documentary crew, who follow the ward’s eclectic staff and patients in search of a big scoop. We meet a large ragtag group of elderly patients: Ambrose the grumpy former school master (Simon Williams), Mavis (Patricia England) the dolled-up former dancer, Joe (Jeff Rawle) a former miner; and members of staff such as the enthusiastic Dr. Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), and the stern Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay).

The play unfolds at a leisurely pace, and we are drawn into the world of the Beth with its oddly named wards, and choir of geriatric patients who bless us with old timey songs.  We revel in the dynamics between the groups of patients, laughing at their innuendos and bickering, we even get a sort of villain in the form of Colin (Samuel Barnett), the management consultant son of Joe who hates local hospitals and wants the Beth closed down. It all starts to feel a bit familiar from Bennett, comfortable but familiar. A close-knit group of people taking part in unauthorised activities, and a battle between a more caring approach to one’s job and a more utilitarian approach. And though extra ingredients are added to the mix, the bare bones of Bennett’s recipe are the same, but in the context of a hospital.

However, Allelujah! still provides much to gorge oneself on. Bob Crawley’s set beautifully recreates the sanitised labyrinth style architecture of a hospital with new corridors and doorways appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Dhawan’s Dr Valentine is pitch perfect, gentle and kind radiating the play’s ideal of localised care and a passion for one’s vocation. Posner no more, Barnett also excels as the self-important, Lycra wearing London transplant Colin who has forsaken his Yorkshire roots. The patients are deeply loveable and their choir performances and kitchy dance numbers a joy to watch. Bennett’s discussion of the realities of growing old and the treatment of elderly people by the government and their own families, hits hard, but the musical numbers softens these blows.

Allelujah! is ambitious in its subject matter hitting some marks better than others. Bennett’s first play in six years does not disappoint and reminds us to cherish both the older people in our lives and the NHS, both of which we are blessed to have but often take for granted.

Allelujah! is playing at Bridge Theatre from 18 July to 29 September 2018

Photo: Manuel Harlan