John Gabriel Borkman at the Bridge Theatre

This is Ibsen’s second to last play, written in 1896, but it felt as though it was a commentary on life, and public life, today. A pared back set and simple lighting allowed the words and the acting to do all the work. The writing is lovely, the characters are knowing, able to see others’ faults while managing to avoid seeing their own. It is quite a bleak play, in a bleak winter setting, but remarkable that they are all capable of finding hope in hopeless situations.

In the hands of a less talented director and actors, this could have been a tough watch, but Lia Williams, Simon Russell Beale and Claire Higgins make us care about the selfish, delusional, imperfect people in this play, and they can make us understand why they have made the poor life choices that they made.

It is a play about sibling rivalry, about self-delusion, and about how we use hindsight to justify past decisions. It is also about how difficult it is to learn from the mistakes of others – you can see the next generation heading exactly the same way as their parents. Yet, as throughout the play, there is the faintest sliver of hope at the end.

Don’t go if you are hoping for a light evening’s entertainment, although to be fair, there are many funny lines and light moments. Do go if you want an insight into our complex personalities and into the human condition. I am afraid that I have made this show sound difficult, but I left the theatre uplifted because, in every situation there is hope, and it is human nature to seek out that hope and grasp it. I felt that this play captured the beauty of a bright chink of light shining through the drawn curtains of a darkened room. Sorry about the hyperbole, but it is a great play and, I did really enjoy this production.

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

alellujah

Alan Bennett has consistently been one of England’s best playwrights over the course of the past fifty years. His last couple of plays have been well written and funny, but were a little too cosy to be among my personal favourites of his work. Having said that, everything he writes is at least very good and nicely droll.

Allelujah! is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital that is at risk of closure, and for most of the first act we are lulled into a gentle musical comedy about the hardships and indignities of growing old. However, towards the end of the act, things take an unexpected and darker direction and we realise that, during the first third of the play, the scene was being set for a biting political satire. Alan Bennett is cross, and this irritation has led to some of his best writing in years.

This is a play about how poorly we treat the aged in our society and it examines the reasons why this is the case, while entertaining us with smart one liners and whimsical song and dance routines. Nicholas Hynter directs the play, he is a long time collaborator with Bennett and he complements him well. The cast is big and there are many good performances. I particularly liked Sacha Dhawan as Valentine, diffident at first, but bristling with restrained anger by the end. Samuel Barnett is good too, he has an unlikable character to play, yet he manages to have us understand his motivation.

The play has so many scene changes that it might have been written for television. The ingenious set design prevents us feeling that the stage is in a constant state of flux. Arlene Phillips is the choreographer and she has a fine line to tread between keeping the routines tight and having us remember that these people are too old and unwell to be released from hospital – she does a fine job.

The real star of the show is the writing. I love Alan Bennett’s balance, he always presents both sides of an argument. Even when he is presenting a personal point of view, I admire his fairness in giving the other side a voice. He does this particularly well here, he writes some characters with quite unsavoury personality traits in this play, yet they are unapologetic and we understand that they feel justified in their actions, even if we cannot condone them ourselves.

I hope that I haven’t made the play seem too dark and political, because it is a truly funny and entertaining show, made all the better by the fact that it makes you think about the way the old and infirm are treated in our society. I think this is possibly my favourite Alan Bennett play yet.