Understudies do a tremendous job in difficult circumstances, and often don’t get enough credit for it. I say this upfront because at the performance I saw of Alan Bennett‘s new play Allelujah last week at the (gorgeous) Bridge Theatre – specifically the matinee on August 15th – an actor named Colin Haigh went on for Jeff Rawle, who plays one of the most important roles in the show, and he gave an absolutely superb performance. And he didn’t get any credit for it at all.
I mean, I suppose it’s possible I missed it. I arrived at the theatre about twenty minutes before the show began, bought a program, walked around the (lovely) lobby, used the bathroom, waited a few minutes in the lower lobby before I entered the stalls. There were no visible signs announcing Mr. Haigh’s appearance. There was no insert in the programme. There was no announcement before the show. I certainly didn’t miss any audio announcement or a programme insert; if a sign was posted in the lobby – and there wasn’t – it was very small and carefully hidden in a corner.
Unfortunately the Bridge’s response to feedback on the issue has been less than inspiring. First, in response to the theatre’s robo-email request for feedback after the show, there was an email from someone named Rosie, who is apparently unable to spell the word ‘performance’, which would seem to be an unfortunate attribute in someone who works in a theatre. Rosie took what I suppose we might call the Donald Trump approach, and informed me that there were signs posted around the foyer informing patrons of the cast change. There weren’t, but presumably in 2018 trying to gaslight your customers is the hot new trend.
Then, nine days after the performance, the Bridge finally deigned to respond on Twitter, and the tweet – from someone named Millie, who possibly has an MA in condescension – somewhat contradicts the earlier email:
Also, apparently I’m a feedback. Whatever that is.
There are so many things wrong with this that I’m not quite sure where to begin, but I think what I find most amazing here is the idea that it is ever acceptable to put an understudy on without informing the audience. In the US, to do so would be a serious violation of Equity’s codes of practice, which set out clear rules about how an audience should be notified of an understudy’s appearance (two out of three of a sign in the lobby, an insert in the programme, and an audio announcement). I understand it takes time to produce programme inserts or print off signs – I understand it better than most people, I’ve been a house manager in a theatre and I know perfectly well how much there is to do in the forty minutes or so before a performance begins. They’ve got a PA system, though, and it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the theatre’s management to get someone to make an announcement before the lights go down, which takes thirty seconds, or even shove someone onstage to inform the audience ‘in person’. Rather than do any of that, the Bridge’s attitude seems to be “meh, we’ll put a sign up if we have time… and if you complain, we’ll tell you we did even though we didn’t.”
It’s not about not seeing the regular cast member. It’s about respect for audiences and respect for the cast. As I said, Mr. Haigh was superb. I genuinely do not believe I would have seen a better performance if I’d seen Jeff Rawle in the role, and I usually think Jeff Rawle is pretty terrific. Mr. Haigh took a curtain call, of course, but it would have been very easy to walk out of the theatre not knowing you’d seen an understudy, and that’s unfair. The audience deserve to know who they’ve seen (there are no understudies listed in the programme for ‘Allelujah’, and Mr. Haigh plays a small ensemble role which was presumably cut at the performance I saw), and the actor deserves the acknowledgment. “It is not always possible for us to put measures in place to let an audience know” simply isn’t true. It’s a lazy, patronising pat on the head, and someone who genuinely thinks that way should not be in any job involving live performers or a paying audience. Or people.
It’s unfortunate, because I generally like the Bridge. I’ve seen three of their first five shows, I’ve got a ticket for the next one already, and I’m sure I’ll be back there next year. I like the auditorium, and I very much like that they’ve made sure there’s a wide range of ticket prices, and that the view from the cheap seats is quite good (the £15 I spent on a ticket to see Laura Linney’s extraordinary performance in My Name is Lucy Barton might well turn out to be the best bargain I get all year). The foyer is lovely, the front-of-house staff are very welcoming, my experience of the hospitality side of the operation is that they’ve got it more or less exactly right, and for this show, after I booked the ticket, the theatre’s box office went way beyond the call of duty: I’d booked a seat in the front row of the stalls, and when the show was in previews I received an email telling me that for this production the stage deck was built up higher than usual (to accommodate tracks for sliding scenery), and that therefore the view was compromised and they were returning £10 from the ticket price I’d paid to my account with the box office to put towards a ticket for a future production. They didn’t have to do that, and most theatres wouldn’t have, and I do genuinely appreciate that gesture very much. I think they’re trying very hard to establish themselves as a venue that values their customers – which makes their apparent attitude towards announcing understudies all the more baffling.
As for the show itself… it is not vintage Alan Bennett. If you are expecting a play at the same level as The Madness of George III or The History Boys or Habeas Corpus or the Talking Heads monologues you’ll be disappointed. It is worth seeing. It’s full of sharp lines and sharp performances, the play’s debate about the nature of the NHS is nothing if not timely, and Peter Forbes’s hospital administrator is a glorious comic creation. As a piece, though, it doesn’t quite come together, and it’s a little bit too stuffed with ideas and characters. Allelujah is set in the geriatric ward of an old-fashioned community hospital in a small town somewhere in Yorkshire. Patient turnover in the geriatric ward is slow – a sign of inefficiency according to Samuel Barnett’s smoothly blunt management consultant – which means the facility is under threat of closure. After years of austerity government, beds are at a premium; the ward sister, though, has her own rather draconian way of making space for incoming patients. Mixed in with all this there’s commentary about the visa status of Sacha Dhawan’s immigrant doctor and about the UK’s increasingly hostile attitude to migrants, about the value (or lack of it) that society places on the old, about the values the NHS had when it was established versus the values it has today, about the shortcomings of the education system, about the north-south divide, about the forces that drive the educated children of working-class parents to put distance between themselves and their roots, and… you get the idea. There are half-a-dozen plays in here, and they sometimes seem to be fighting each other. AND there are amiable song-and-dance sequences performed by the ward’s ‘choir’ (the ensemble of elderly patients), with music arranged by George Fenton and choreography by Arlene Phillips. There’s a lot going on, and it doesn’t all work.
Nicholas Hytner has assembled a very fine cast, though, and the performances are excellent. Actors like Gwen Taylor and Sue Wallace, both of whom are luxury-cast in relatively small roles, are world-class experts at Bennett’s brand of northern comedy, and they’re in fine form here. Simon Williams is endearingly crusty as an ancient former schoolmaster who is becoming more and more irritated at his failure to die. Samuel Barnett gives a carefully-judged, smartly satirical turn as the management consultant, representing the post-Thatcherite side of the play’s ideological debate, and Sacha Dhawan is sweetly kind as the doctor-with-visa-issues. The supporting roles are all ideally cast, and Deborah Findlay’s Sister Gilchrist is a quietly chilling triumph (related: the writing may often lack focus, but the Act One curtain is a knockout). The play itself is never less than entertaining, and it’s often very funny. The song-and-dance numbers are thoroughly charming, the performances – as I said – are lovely – and it’s a perfectly pleasant two hours in the theatre.
There’s potential, though, for it to be a lot more than ‘perfectly pleasant’. With Sister Gilchrist, Bennett takes the play around a very dark corner, and that’s by far the most interesting element of a piece that bites off a little bit more than it can chew. Elsewhere in the play – for example in Dr. Valentine’s interview with an immigration officer about his visa status – Bennett sometimes pulls his punches, or rather goes for a punchline rather than a punch. The one-liners are always sharp, but in this play he seems – aside from in the writing for Sister Gilchrist – unusually reluctant to twist the knife after he’s inserted it. Having said that, even third-tier Alan Bennett is worth a look. If you don’t expect a masterpiece, you’ll have a good time; I’m certainly intending to go to the NT Live screening.
After my experience of seeing it, though, and after the Bridge’s follow-up to my inquiry about announcing understudies, I’m afraid I’ve lost a certain amount of respect for the venue, or at least for some of the people running it. It’s a new venture and they’re trying very hard, and they are getting a lot of things right – but in that one area, I’m afraid the Bridge’s management still have a lot to learn.