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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner style a quasi-musical to tackle dark themes in Bennett’s first play for six years. Thus pop songs croons and hymns are strung and arranged by George Fenton. Bob Crowley designs and Arlene Phillips choreographs. Natasha Chivers lights and Mike Walker’s discreet sound ensures fluent transitions from music though very few other noises.


Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner have between them put patients back at the heart of the NHS: by having the twelve-strong patient ensemble take the big curtain call. In ongoing NHS cuts it’s a devastatingly simple reminder of what this should be about. Allelujah!, Bennett’s angriest and darkest play, depicts all this in surface badinage: but his theme is what the NHS has become.


One of the last cradle-to-grave hospitals in Yorkshire, the Bethlehem or Beth is fighting closure; the chairman’s brought in a Pennines TV docu-crew to affirm the Beth’s abundant life. It doesn’t matter it’s exceeding targets, that’s dangerously close to admitting socialism works. This is ferocious politics and Bennett’s taking sides in a way you only see in his diaries. And of course it’s blissfully entertaining. Beware.


Styled as a quasi-musical to tackle stark themes in Bennett’s first play for six years, it explodes with cartwheeling energy. The live stream of oldies but goldies as it were, arranged by George Fenton contain in the title-piece ‘And thou most kind and gentle death/Waiting to hush our latest breath’ though Bennett warns us to be careful for what we wish for. Arlene Phillips choreographs these routines with touching pizzazz. Famously, one actor nearly died last year and the very act of dancing basics like these is a joyous fling at oblivion.


Allelujah! takes a very different line from say Nina Raine’s magnificently medi-jargoned Tiger Country, which like Allelujah! is also episodic though tightly incidental and dense with doc-sassy plotlines. The whole concept allows themes and plots to emerge without wires. Comparisons with Mike Nichols’ state-of-the-nation The National Health of 1968 are inevitable; and Bennett would know that was exactly fifty years ago.


Designer Bob Crowley ensures a fleet uncluttered stage where wall-panels wheel on and off to represent newly-renamed wards – out with Princess Margaret, on with Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, Fatima Whitbread, names patients relish. Bar chairs and a hand-held docu-crew, there’s little paraphanalia; the most realistic scene is a peaceful night ward. Natasha Chivers lights the neon way and Mike Walker’s discreet sound ensures fluent transitions from music though very few other noises. It’s a real chorus, not a bleep dance.


With a twenty-five-strong ensemble – twelve patients, seven staff and six visitors – there’s deft threading between key roles and those who like Jacqueline Chan’s Molly communicate by bashing out a tambourine on an old tin tray.


Deborah Findlay projects just the right distance and disenchantment as needlingly efficient Sister Gilchrist, or to her one friend ‘Alma’. Despite this in the scrabble of all patients to get Riche Hart’s charming physio Gerald on their backs Gilchrists bags him for her own neck first. Taking eye-candy out of patients’ reach has nothing on it. Findlay’s is a layered role; at every juncture some sympathy’s elicited; she believes in what she’s doing. A rationalisation of targets is brought by Findlay to conclusions every minister should study. Findlay’s laconic and decided mind-set admits no reverse gears. Lessons learned somewhere.


Peter Forbes is very good as unsympathetic pomp-and-circumstance Chairman Salter: a bustle of virtue-signalling and venial self-interest, later stripped to fright. Cheerfully anodyne in their bustle, Sam Bond’s docu-director Alex and Nadine Higgin’s camera Cliff enjoy a sudden chilling moment when they get their coup. Even here such vignettes both recall say Bennett’s 2012 People and nail something more troubling than that work.


Sacha Dhawan as immigrant Dr Valentine (his real name too tongue-twisting he concludes) lives up to his moniker. As the dramatist admits, Valentine’s the one closest to Bennett’s ideals of Englishness: facing a tribunal to see if he’s fit to be any such thing by withered bureaucrats. Valentine has no trouble he says with Elgar, not the music. He can sing Pomp and Circumstance No. 1. It’s something else.


Bennett elicits savage irony from this. Dhawan convinces as the most likeable, morally upright character – without being boring. Desperate to learn arcane words from Simon Williams’ retired teacher Ambrose to face his visa tribunal, he’s upbraided for ‘touching’ despite everyone liking this, and gifted with a final kick of a speech.


Samuel Barnett impresses as post-Thatcherite bike-whizzing (very Green Wing) Colin with his ‘No, not Muslims, you dick, moors.’ That’s Colin. Such mobile banter summarises a nervy impatience with roots he’s dragged back to. As ever with Bennett history has a way of snatching at you like bindweed.


A Civil Service-attached SPAD tasked with closing down hospitals it’s a task Colin unexpectedly relishes (there’s a similar plot-point to David Hare’s even more recent I’m Not Running, when the man appealed to turns out to be the enemy).


Colin’s certainly reacted against Scargill-era Joe – his father the old miner, who just happens to be domiciled there. Jeff Rawle’s dyspeptic railing flays most things except Nurse Gilchrist with whom he touchingly dances. His initially skirling, homophobic contempt for his son gets edgily broached, though the different way David Moorst’s work-experience Andy responds to both has resonances Colin never guesses at. Colin though admits to Joe that Scargill told the truth about mine closure.


The crucial confrontation is Colin’s gleeful pronouncement to Salter: ‘The state should not be seen to work. If the state is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.’ This is by contrast the same Colin who’s induced by his father to sing too. ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ is indelibly linked in Bennett’s and many others’ minds with Kathleen Ferrier. Gendered as it is, it fits Colin; his father tacitly recognizes this.


Among patients Julia Foster’s ex-librarian commands with a sad small litany of hoping that in age, after all her caring-for-parent retirement years she’d now have control. Foster invests this with wafer-thin desolation. But – all that library experience reveals an unexpected talent for filming as a kind of eye-to-the-ground: it proves pivotal.


Williams as Ambrose the scholarly teacher looks striking and has admirers: his acting shows why. He follows the Stephen Fry school; it you’ve a wide vocabulary then swearing’s mandatory and he gives lessons in it too. But despite batting batty Hazel away (Sue Wallace deliciously importuning) he’s wholly on side with Valentine. ‘Abso-bloody-lutely’: we get lessons in tmesis.


Jacqueline Clark as Mrs Maudsley ‘the Pudsey Nightingale’ in her disinhibited dementia declaims ‘it was my house’ till we get that it’s not just about signing over to daughter Rosie Ede who shows some warmth, and her husband Duncan Wisbey, who show none; he’s terrified she’ll die before the gift-period matures. The Beth too is Maudsley’s house.


The patient ensemble deserve their prominence. Patricia England’s bullshit-detecting Mavis who’s still ‘whitening the sepulchure’, Colin Haigh’s worried Arthur, Anna Lindup’s ex-dancer Renee content to be foil to Lucille, Louis Mahoney’s bi-polar Neville, Cleo Sylvestre’s Lucozade-vigilant Cora and the magnificent Lucille whose riposte to Joe’s ‘I had ten men under me’ is a line to wait for.


Another’s worth trailing to show how Bennett’s firing on all jokes. Doctors are now given bonuses on getting patients into beds. Charmer junior doctor Rameesh (Manish Ghandi) explains ‘a smile knows no frontiers’ to Gary Wood’s Fletcher, who’s tried to bed Gilchrist. Dreaming of empty beds he’s ‘thinking outside the box’ when it comes to innovative bed placements: the mortuary.


Bennett’s not content to allow stereotypical pc-niceness either. The two gay men are unpleasant or equivocal; Nicola Hughes’ angelic Nurse Pinkney rigidly sets disaster in train for one patient.


Hytner draws all these strands into the last nailing tableaux; the denouement’s extraordinary. Valentine tells Gilchrist why some parts of the body are ‘young and ageless… solve that and you would undoubtedly get the Nobel Prize.’ By asking Britain its identity he condemns it: ’where education is a privilege and nationality a boast… Open your arms before it’s too late.’ With such a panoramic sweep we’re not asked to settle on a protagonist or any intimate conflict. The dispossessed Valentine though stands for the humanity, indeed heart that idealogues and worse are trying to cut out. Bennett’s exhorting us to fight back with laughter and rage in this riveting, timely play. It’s a sad and angry consolation.