Getting old … Allelujah

Being critical of “national treasures “(NT) is not normally done –after all, they are national treasures. George Monbiot did a pretty good hatchet job on NT David Attenborough this week in The Guardian berating him for not being more outspoken on environmental issues.

I have a more gentle criticism to make of Alan Bennett, another NT.

Last week, I saw the cinema streaming of Allelujah, his new play from the Bridge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner.

It is set in a geriatric ward in a small northern hospital, under threat of closure. Dramatically, it has a slow, long first act and a much more engaging second Act.

The problem is that Bennet takes a pop at too many targets –hospital closures, the “suits” from Whitehall, “bed blocking” which means old people cannot be discharged from hospital as they have nowhere to go, the north south divide, home office policies on immigration as the immigrant doctor is hauled in for interview about his status, overworked NHS staff, alienation of son from his father,   -but above all, it is about getting and being old.

And that is where I had a problem. Bennet tries to raise the question of whether the old have lived too long – as if they have a choice. He acts out Euthanasia – is that the solution? But that depends on what you see as the problem.

There is the usual slick and humorous dialogue, but also lots of jokes about incontinence and memory loss. WE, the audience, are looking at THEM, the elderly patients and laughing at them, maybe with some pity but across the divide of knowing we are not like that. And, oh look, they sing and dance too, isn’t that clever – and funny …

Ultimately, I thought it was patronising.

Of course, Alan Bennet is himself old. Maybe the only way to deal with our (his?) fears of infirmity, loss of independence, and loss of vigour is to make them the butt of jokes.

I seem to be out of step on this one but despite him being a NT, I’m not a fan of this latest play. Old age brings challenges to us all – and losses and difficulties, in varying degrees. Most are met with resilience. There is an existential reality that we age and that has to be lived through, like any other stage of life. Particular aspects can be sad or funny or tragic -but “old people” are not a homogeneous group. How to convey that with nuance seems to be a dramatic challenge. THEY are not funny, per se –ultimately THEY are US.  


Linda Patterson   11/11/2018


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