How do you tell someone who has done something brilliantly for many decades that he has reached the point where he shouldn’t do it any more? It is a question that millions of children face when forced to deal with ageing parents who really shouldn’t be driving any longer. It is also the question raised by the new Alan Bennett play, Allelujah!
‘National treasure’ is an overworked phrase but, in Bennett’s case, thoroughly deserved. His unique combination of satire, insight, pathos and sensibility has created a superb artistic canon, stretching over theatre, television and literature. His first play, Forty Years On, remains one of my favourites. His TV series On the Margin, scandalously destroyed by the BBC, was one of the funniest ever made. His series Talking Heads was similarly brilliant, and bears watching over and over again. And then there are the films (and plays) of The History Boys, The Lady in the Van and The Madness of King George. One could go on. And on.
So I do not approach this piece as anything other than an avid admirer of Alan Bennett’s work. Which makes it a great deal harder to write. But it needs to be written, and without mincing words, because Daddy needs to be told not to drive. It is dangerous. In this case, to the reputation.
Alan Bennett is now 84. His play Allelujah! recently opened at the Bridge Theatre in London. It is atrocious. Not merely poor, or one of his less good, but atrocious. It did not help that I saw it the day after seeing The Lehman Trilogy at the National – an exhilarating piece of theatre, which made the comparison all the more stark.
Allelujah! is dismal at every level. It is not very funny: the jokes are few and thin. As a piece of political commentary, it is incoherent. Surely not even the most besotted supporters of an unreformed NHS think its main role should be as a jolly care home for the elderly, or believe that target setting is prompting nurses to commit mass murder. And when the main characters step forward to deliver homilies to the audience – explaining points that the play itself should be conveying – every rule of good writing is broken.
Much of the play is taken up with the inmates of an unfortunate hospital performing sing-alongs of songs from the ’30s and ’40s, which is tedious and irrelevant. It is somewhat superfluous to add that the acting is lacklustre: with a script like this, it could hardly be anything else.
But perhaps the worst aspect of the play is its complete lack of convincing characterisation. Yet this is where Alan Bennett has always excelled. Indeed, one could say that it has defined his work over the years. It is possible that any individual member of the cast would have made for a riveting character study. But, with 25 of them, there is no time to do that, so we are left with a series of stereotypes and clichés, undeveloped and uninteresting. (In Forty Years On, another play with a cavalcade of a cast, Bennett was able to overcome this problem triumphantly.)
Alan Bennett has always been a sentimentalist. That is a large part of his charm. When the sentiment is teamed with a sharp wit, a lively mind and perceptive characterisation, it is a delight. Now, only the sentimentality remains, and it is cloying.
In the interests of fairness, I should point out that the theatre was packed, and that most of the rest of the audience appeared to enjoy the play. I still feel that they were laughing at, and applauding, the playwright’s reputation, not his present offering. Three of us, all Alan Bennett fans, watched it together and, at the end of the first act, turned to each other and said in unision “what a complete load of rubbish”.
Does Sir Nicholas Hytner privately share this opinion? He has directed many of Bennett’s other plays, including several of the great ones. He must surely be able to see how inferior Allelujah! is. Yet, when you have taken the bold step of launching your own theatre, and when you know that anything by Alan Bennett will put bums on seats, it must be difficult to resist staging his new play, perhaps convincing yourself in the process that it can’t be as bad as all that.
But it can be as bad as all that. It may be that Alan Bennett can still write fine memoirs, and maybe other things. But I don’t think he can any longer write plays. Someone needs to tell him that. And that someone is probably Nicholas Hytner.