Hospitals make good theatre. Shortly after Alan Bennett made his playwriting debut in 1968 with Forty Years On, Peter Nichols wrote The National Health in which a crumbling Victorian gothic ward became a metaphor for contemporary Britain. Now Bennett echoes Nichols’ device, in a play full of quiet anger under its surface charm, by using a hospital as a way of dissecting the problems with the body politic.
Bennett’s setting is the geriatric ward of a Yorkshire hospital, the Bethlehem, threatened with closure. It is not, however, going down without a fight. Salter, the self-important chair of its trust, has waged a sponsored campaign to keep it alive and has a TV crew on hand to record its vitality. The patients are a cheery lot with their own choir. Even Sister Gilchrist has her own peculiar methods to ensure maximum cleanliness.
But the arrival of Colin, a management consultant attached to the health ministry, suggests that the days of this kind of cradle-to-grave hospital are numbered.
As so often in Bennett, plot is secondary to pungent points. One happily accepts the coincidence that Colin’s dad, a former miner, is one of the patients because of Bennett’s ability to register his rage at what our society has become. The pivotal scene is a confrontation between Salter and Colin in which the former makes the case for a hospital that serves its community, is efficiently run and even makes a profit. To Colin, the hospital’s success in meeting its targets is proof of its dispensability.
“The state,” he argues, “should not be seen to work. If the state is seen to work, we shall never be rid of it.”
In this richly discursive play, Bennett hits his own chosen targets. An immigrant doctor, depending on a student visa, is threatened with deportation and rebuked for his hands-on care. The hospital’s attempt to survive is tied up with publicity gimmicks and the renaming of wards after pop stars. There is even a brutal logic to Sister Gilchrist’s determination to ensure the ward has a rapid turnover. But, this being a Bennett play, there is a wealth of good jokes and a deceptive patina of nostalgia. The classic songs, arranged by George Fenton and sung by the patients, are proof of the durability of age and a poignant reminder of a lost happiness.
Bennett is not above using familiar tropes: the former schoolmaster sadly awaiting a visit from a former student is straight out of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables. But this is a sharp, funny, subversively political play whose episodic structure is cleverly camouflaged by Nicholas Hytner as director, Bob Crowley as designer and Arlene Phillips as choreographer.
In a 25-strong cast there are some fine performances. Deborah Findlay as the criminally efficient Sister, Peter Forbes as the self-aggrandising Salter, Samuel Barnett as the post-Thatcherite Colin and Sacha Dhawan as the precarious immigrant all impress. Among the patients Julia Foster as an ex-librarian, Jeff Rawle as the old miner and Simon Williams as the scholarly teacher stand out. It is also touching to note the presence of Cleo Sylvestre, who played a young nurse in The National Health, to which Bennett’s play provides an invaluable companion-piece in its ability to find in a hospital a microcosm of modern society.
- At the Bridge theatre, London, until 29 September