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Allelujah! - National Theatre (Not) Live

It’s the NHS, but not as I’ve known it for the past few years. A general hospital in the north of England, with ‘general’ being very much the operative word, is the setting for Allelujah! The focus is on a geriatric ward: different wards of the building have been named after various people. The one the characters are in happens to be called ‘Dusty Springfield’, whilst others, judging by a sign on a wall giving directions, include ‘Len Hutton’, ‘Barbara Hepworth’ and ‘J.B. Priestley’.

It’s taken this long for me to get around to seeing this Bridge Theatre production due to, well, lots of other productions to see, and it was only possible at all thanks to the power of National Theatre Live, or in this case, National Theatre Not So Live (what show in London starts at 6:10pm?), seeing as the run at the Bridge Theatre is now over. One of the patients at the geriatric ward, Joe (Jeff Rawle) simply doesn’t want to get well enough to be discharged, as that would mean returning to a care home, or to be more precise a non-care home, where the living conditions are considerably worse than they are at the hospital.

The play strongly suggests that there’s a lot of ‘bed blocking’ going on, such that in this instance, the geriatric ward even has a choir, such is the sense of community and camaraderie amongst the patients and staff. But there is one method of moving people on, deployed by Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), who at the interval is slated to receive a long service award just prior to retirement, but by the curtain call is told she can expect life imprisonment.

The choir does, at least, provide some healthy entertainment as the characters find common ground in the movement and choreography (Arlene Phillips). This isn’t a play that shows the sort of bad behaviour uncovered by investigative journalism in this country, where people are at best benignly neglected and at worst shouted at, spat at and kicked where the sun doesn’t shine. A fair amount goes on in this play, which does at least justify its two hours and 45 minutes running time.

One of the doctors, Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), who isn’t really called Valentine, but he asserts speakers of British English can’t easily pronounce his actual name, finds himself rejected by a most bizarre citizenship test in which he fails to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ all the way through. The narcissism of the chairman of the hospital, Salter (Peter Forbes) shines through whenever a documentary director, Alex (Sam Bond) and a camera operator, Cliff (Nadine Higgin) are around, all part of a bid to ‘Save the Beth’, an ongoing campaign to prevent the powers that be from closing down the Bethlehem Hospital.

Joe’s son, Colin (Samuel Barnett), a management consultant, is on a private visit, but try telling that to Salter, who continues to push for answers as to the future status of the hospital. That is resolved, happily or not, by the end of the show, but of note is Colin’s ‘move with the times, get with the programme’ outlook. But as I started by saying, it’s not the NHS I know: here, there’s some evidence of frantic activity – as soon as a bed becomes available, a patient is rushed over to it, as though a seat had suddenly become available on a Tube train in rush hour. But otherwise, everyone is more or less cared for, fed on time, and medicated on time. Perhaps a greater sense of how stretched staff and resources are would have made this production more credible. Still, I did maintain interest throughout.

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