Bridge Theatre, London
IN THIS 70th anniversary year of the NHS, Alan Bennett’s new play, set in a much-loved local hospital facing the threat of closure, is a sharp reminder of the crises it faces.
Bennett takes the provision of geriatric care as the focus for the action and a mature ensemble of actors adds authenticity to a piece which is in part a celebration of the onset of age while offering rebuke to the disregard of officialdom and the common neglect of older people who find themselves in need of care.
Among the convincing characters created by Bennett, there's the humourless and grim Amy Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), the nursing sister in charge of the geriatric unit who runs a tight ship in mitigating episodes of incontinence and ruthlessly ensuring efficiency of throughput. There's always an available bed on her ward.
But geriatric life is alleviated by Nurse Pinkney (Nicola Hughes), who organises the patients into a choir and it is the frequent rendition of familiar songs that offer punctuation, joy and poignancy to the theatrical action. And there's compassion and enthusiasm from young medic Dr Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), in charge of specialist care. Yet he's haunted by the possibility of having his immigration status withdrawn.
Polemical sparks fly in the transactional discourse between hospital trust chair Mr Salter (Peter Forbes), who's commissioned a video to support the case for keeping the hospital open, and Colin (Samuel Barnett). As well being the son of one of the patients, he happens to be a senior management consultant who has the ear of the Secretary of State for Health.
Unlike his ex-miner father Joe (Jeff Rawles), he's an adherent of the privatised profit-incentivised approach to health provision of health. Salter, despite his defence of the hospital, is far more concerned with his own self-interest — like most public service managers today, this is a hollow man of straw.
If all this comes across as rather dour, that's certainly not the case. Bennett’s ability to illuminate character through pithy dialogue and one-liners is paramount and the comic timing of the experienced cast is spot-on.
How to convincingly choreograph an apparent group of semi-invalids through dance routines is a challenge Arlene Phillips meets with aplomb and there are moments of terpsichorean delight as the second half opens, with a rejuvenated cast jiving to Good Golly Miss Molly and concluding with a spirited rendition of Get Happy.
The musical arrangements by George Fenton are superb and, along with the flawless performances and polished direction from Nicholas Hytner, make this a production well worth seeing.
Runs until September 29, box office: bridgetheatre.co.uk.
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