Getting old … Allelujah

18 June 2019

Dr Linda Patterson OBE FRCP is a retired consultant in General and Geriatric Medicine. She tweets @Lindajpatt

Voicing criticism of “national treasures” (NT) is not normally done – after all, they are national treasures. George Monbiot wrote a Guardian article about NT David Attenborough criticising him for not being more outspoken on environmental issues. 

I have a gentler criticism to make of Alan Bennett, another NT. 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 long, slow first Act and a much more engaging second Act.

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

And that is where I had a problem. Bennett tries to raise the question of whether older people have lived too long - as if they have a choice.

There is the usual slick and humorous dialogue, but lots of jokes about incontinence and memory loss. WE, the audience, are looking at THEM, the older 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

Ultimately, I thought it was a bit patronising.

Of course, Alan Bennett is himself older. Maybe the only way to deal with our (his?) fears of infirmity, loss of independence, and loss of vigour is to make it 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. Older age brings challenges to us all, plus losses and difficulties, in varying degrees. Most are met with resilience. The existential reality is that we age and that older age has to be lived, 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 nuance seems to be a dramatic challenge. THEY are not funny, per se – ultimately, THEY are US.


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