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A new play by Alan Bennett
The Bridge Theatre, London SE1
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
"Ooh I feel better for that banana" quips one of the geriatric ward old dears in Alan Bennett's new play. Has there ever been a better writer of the immaculately timed comedy non sequitur?
In an interview about this work he revealed that he never does any research before writing as it would cause him instant writer's block, instead it is all done afterwards and revisions are made accordingly, in this case with his long time successful collaborator and director, Nick Hytner. This means he gets the comedy and the characters right first, and it works. As the old comedy dictum puts it - if you're going to tell people things they don't want to hear you'd better make 'em laugh while you're doing it.
In a great programme note, Fintan O'Toole nails Bennett's unique position as an unwilling National Treasure, "doomed to amiability" as he puts it. "With lesser writers, as they get older, memory becomes a retreat from the present. With Bennett, memory is a rebuke to the present". Those who have dismissed this as a pastiche of past hits miss the point therefore. Its triumph is that it manages to be witty and humane while getting to the nub of the complex issues here. Sometimes old hands get it right too. Bennett is 84.
Set in a small, cradle-to-grave, general hospital in Yorkshire, which is scheduled for 'consolidation' with a larger regional 'centre of excellence', he introduces us to a dozen seniors who are in a geriatric limbo all too familiar to those who are familiar with the current NHS. Most are too fragile to be discharged home, 'community nursing' is totally inadequate to support them and neither can a place be found for them in a care home. Some also actively resist that fate. So, they are all stuck.
This infuriates the management consultants at the Department of Health including Colin (Samuel Barnett) who proclaims "cosy is lazy" when challenged that familiarity might be what these patients need and that bigger might not always mean better. He has personal reasons for cycling up from London though, as his father Joe (Jeff Rawle), with whom he has a prickly relationship, is one of the patients. This lets Bennett explore familiar territory of fathers vs sons and home vs escape.
On arrival he's met by Salter, the over-keen Chairman of the Hospital Trust. Peter Forbes is a pinstriped delight as this provincial panjandrum who is never absent if a TV crew is about, and there is one on the loose here as the local television channel is doing a documentary about the planned closure.
There's also a kindly, devoted, Sri Lankan doctor (Sacha Dhawan) who, in a topical twist, is being preyed on by the Home Office about his work visa. There is the cheery ward sister Nurse Pinkney (musical star Nicola Hughes) and a wonderfully glum work experience kid (David Moorst).
The dry as dust Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay in fine form) thinks "What's the use in cheering them up and giving them hope" and it is her actions which precipitate a plot development which turns what otherwise would have been a collection of merely witty sketches into a real drama.
Bennett is brilliant on the obsessiveness and preoccupations of the old and a great ensemble cast have real fun with their roles. The bunch are encouraged in therapeutic singalongs to the pop standards of their youth but Bennett cleverly has these songs expanded into fully fledged musical numbers, which are wittily choreographed by Arlene Phillips. These numbers complement the drama and give the piece the energy of a musical, ensuring that the potentially dreary subject matter doesn't derail the play.
Technical credits throughout are excellent including designer Bob Crowley's dull hospital wards and the lightness of touch which Hytner brings to the direction makes for a supremely entertaining evening.