Theatre in London

Money matters

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 03.08.2018

At the Bridge Theatre Allelujah!, the latest play by Alan Bennett, has just opened to great applause. It is a state-of-the-nation drama, a sprawling comedy in that understated and even slightly nonchalant Bennett manner. Nicholas Hytner directs.

The action is set on the geriatric ward of an old-fashioned cradle-to-the grave Yorkshire hospital that is about to be closed if London bureaucrats and NHS efficiency planners get their way. Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay) rules with an iron fist and flippantly dismisses her patients as “this lot (that) have left it too late to die”, while Dr Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), the immigrant doctor in charge, tries his best to relieve the relentless suffering. Since he is still on his student visa, he might be deported any time.

Bennett neatly balances the personal with the political as the hospital becomes a microcosm of society at large. There are numerous very comic moments, which prevents the play from ever getting trapped in sentimentality. The plot often concentrates on the squabbling between patients, on how some still try their best to show off and impress others. Clearly, nobody seems to be particularly keen to go into the long, dark night! Yet if we believe Sister Gilchrist: “No one likes old people. Old people don’t like old people.” You have to acknowledge that being stuck on a geriatric ward of this type can turn into a living nightmare. Bennett does not shy away from showing physical and mental degradation, but he invariably comes back to the absurdly funny side of it all. Clearly, the best moments for the patients are the singsong sessions during which they metamorphose into much happier creatures with creaky voices.

All in all, Allelujah! raises a painfully comic and politically subversive mix of issues: social problems are at the very heart of it, as are fading faculties and government targets. The cast is flawless. And the very explicit message addressed directly to the audience at the very end is the only moment that smacks of bitter melancholy or even despair.

A totally different experience awaits you at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End. Here Michael Grandage directs The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a black comedy by Martin McDonagh, who has referred to his drama as “a violent play that is wholeheartedly anti-violence”. Aidan Turner, the Poldark heartthrob, appears as an Irish terrorist who has one friend only, namely his black cat. The plot draws you in from the very start and takes you by surprise more than once since it makes you laugh at the most unexpected moments. Whoever thought that a gory torture scene could actually turn out to be wildly comic?

McDonagh’s Aran Islands do not stand for the Irish Revival or the thick woollen jumpers tourists adore. They come to represent a mad crusade run by the bumbling “soldiers” of the INLA, one of the IRA’s most violent splinter groups. There is at least as much blood on stage as there is in Jacobean tragedy, but the tone is completely different since The Lieutenant of Inishmore embraces both the grotesque and the farcical. It is a play full of contradictions. The acting is spot-on, and the standing ovation well deserved. If only shoe polish could turn a ginger cat black!

Meanwhile, at the Lyttleton you can revisit an epic trilogy that came to our GTL two seasons ago. The Lehman Trilogy is by Stefano Massini and shows American capitalism in the making. Here it is in its new English version. The adaptation is by Ben Power.

In 1844 the first Lehman, a Jewish merchant’s son from small-town Bavaria (where anti-Semitism was rife), gets off the boat in New York. It is the start of an American Dream for the family. Soon two more brothers join Henry, and the Lehmans will succeed in building an empire over three generations. From selling cloth to becoming middlemen in the cotton industry; from investing in coffee and in the railways to going into banking. From 19th-century plantations in Alabama to modern Wall Street. They conquer the New World step by step. Hard work and risk-taking are key to the rise, only for it all to collapse in 2008.

When their empire unravels with the subprime crisis, it is much too late. The breaking point had come, and casino capitalism had failed once again. Who does not remember the pictures of traders leaving the Lehman building with their stuff packed in cardboard boxes? Looking back, you might wonder whether any lessons have actually been learnt.

Not surprisingly, the three-and-a-half-hour morality tale directed by Sam Mendes has already become a must-see show thanks, above all, to the brilliance of the three actors on stage, namely Simon Russell-Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles. They seamlessly slip into multiple roles, appearing as the Lehman brothers over three generations of the banking dynasty, but also as their neighbours, wives, children, employees and business rivals. It is the most sophisticated of master classes. Poetry and humour run the roost, and the loveliest thing is that the actors themselves allow you to share the fun they seem to be having on stage. A sheer delight!

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, SE1, to September 29; The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Noël Coward Theatre, WC2, to September 8; The Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre, SE1, to October 20

Janine Goedert
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