Nothing has illustrated the current turmoil in British politics as clearly as the recent fall of the pound against the dollar, a conundrum even for the ruling party whose Prime Minister and Chancellor have provoked it. Richard Eyre is awfully funny Alleluia reflects this schism in more ways than one, balancing broad gray book comedy and seriously macabre drama with the result that seemingly mild satire inexplicably plunges into a murky existential abyss in its final act. Even fans of Alan Bennett, the famous folk playwright and national treasure of the north, will struggle with the juxtaposition of tongue-in-cheek bathos and savagery, this latest rise of AlleluiaThe original incarnation of as a Bennett play peppered with Dennis Potter-esque song-and-dance numbers.
The subject is the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, once the envy of the world and now the object of a massive culture war between the sentimental left and the neoliberal right, who want to sell it in favor of the American model based on the insurance. This duality plays out on screen as we follow Dr. Valentine (Bally Gill) through the halls of The Beth, a much-loved Yorkshire geriatric hospital struggling to survive. The altruistic Dr. Valentine’s passion for her work is highlighted by the pragmatism of her boss, Sister Gilpin (played against type by Jennifer Saunders in a largely straight role). And if you haven’t spotted the intricacies in there, there’s right-wing lobbyist Colin (Russell Tovey) who visits his irascible leftist ex-miner father while plotting to cut off funding from The Beth entirely in the purpose of forcing it to compete with market forces.
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The tone is very Bennett: the neighborhoods are dryly named after camp icons such as Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey; there are references to vanilla slices; and the specter of ‘woke’ politics is beautifully addressed when the head of The Beth’s board of directors sadly says, ‘I’ve been mayor twice. She is currently a woman. The characters, however, aren’t as rounded as we’ve come to expect from Bennett’s wonderful monologues. It’s true that Judi Dench’s Mary, a former librarian now struggling to find a place in today’s tech-saturated, post-literate world, is coming close, as is Derek Jacobi’s Ambrose, a former teacher living constantly at death’s door. The scheming couple trying to keep their senile mother alive just long enough to relieve her of her house, however, feels oddly villainous, though that’s perhaps a truer harbinger of how things will turn out.
Eyre doesn’t have much of a comedy track record (there weren’t too many laughs in Iris), and he’s clearly much more comfortable with completely dramatic material and writers like Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal) and Ian McEwan (The ploughman’s lunch and The Children’s Act). That doesn’t mean that Alleluia doesn’t have its funny moments, mind – Eyre fully understands Bennett’s delightful pun, and there are some wonderful lines (in explaining The Beth’s glowing reputation for geriatric care, we’re told his only rivals are “Doncaster for cataracts and Pontefract for audiology”). The problem is the narrative itself, which is overly complicated by a subplot about a film crew trying to make a documentary about The Beth but falling accidentally on the chilling secret of its effectiveness.You could be forgiven for thinking that would be the end of it, with a major character suffering a humiliating fall from grace while the patients chant “Hallelujah, come on, be happy!”but for some reason , the story doesn’t end there, ending with a confusing coda that leaves a now disillusioned Dr. Valentine writhing in the wind as the Covid pandemic sweeps the world.
In some ways the gloom is to be welcomed, as there is no panacea for the NHS and there is no point in pretending there is. But, like the UK at the moment, it’s one thing to be a realistic reflection of a complicated issue and quite another to be a tonal confusion. And for Alleluiawho will be heading to institutions like The Beth at a faster pace than Marvel fans, there’s not much comfort in hearing the two sides talking at the same time.
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