Just Wil­liams

‘Be­ing nat­u­rally lazy, I am de­lighted with my wheel­chair. “And could I have a catheter, please, if there’s one go­ing?”’

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Si­mon on his new play – bed­pans and all

I AM ON MY WAY to the first re­hearsal of Alan Ben­nett’s new play, Al­lelu­jah! , at The Bridge Theatre, ter­ri­fied as al­ways. The say­ing goes that the only pur­pose of the first day’s re­hearsal is to get through to the sec­ond. It’s hard to imag­ine we’ll all be hug­ging and sob­bing af­ter the fi­nal cur­tain in three months’ time. I was once told, ‘You have to start lov­ing one an­other very quickly in this game.’

Ev­ery­body in Eng­land can do Alan Ben­nett’s voice as well as, if not bet­ter than, the man him­self – but the temp­ta­tion is al­ways there. The York­shire ac­cent lends ev­ery­day speech such heart and hu­mour (even with Ge­of­frey Boy­cott). The home coun­ties’ ‘Crikey!’ has never had the charm of ‘By gum!’. If only they didn’t have to say ‘scone’ to rhyme with ‘zone’.

Alan greets me warmly, say­ing he saw me at a me­mo­rial ser­vice re­cently and thought I’d be per­fect cast­ing for Am­brose, a melan­cholic old cur­mud­geon, one of 12 geri­atrics in the York­shire hospi­tal where the play is set. We’re all agreed that we are far, far too young for our parts, but we take to our de­crepit al­ter egos like an­cient ducks to wa­ter. Zim­mer frames and wheel­chairs have been laid on and we have a long ses­sion with a med­i­cal ad­viser to es­tab­lish what ail­ments we’ve got and what symp­toms.

Be­ing nat­u­rally lazy, I’m de­lighted to be in a wheel­chair with my al­lot­ted os­teoarthri­tis, I’ve also put in a re­quest for kid­ney fail­ure. ‘And could I have a catheter, please, if there’s one go­ing?’ Oth­ers have opted for vary­ing lev­els of de­men­tia and in­con­ti­nence. Oh yes, all man­ner of hu­mour is here, from satire to lava­to­rial – The Marigold Ho­tel meets Green Wing. The play is packed with ran­dom new Ben­net­tisms, my favourite be­ing: ‘I do feel bet­ter for that ba­nana.’ Ben­nett casts the same af­fec­tion­ate eye over the hu­man race that Ger­ald Dur­rell did with an­i­mals – we are all trea­sured species.

But, here’s the down­side: there’s to be singing and danc­ing – both of which rank high on my list of dreads. The word chore­og­ra­pher strikes fear into the Wil­liams feet, and it’s not just any old hoofer but Ar­lene Phillips, if you please. It’s like ask­ing Mary Berry to show you how to make toast. And ye gods! Ge­orge Fen­ton is in charge of the mu­sic. He shakes his head and laughs when I tell him I’m tone-deaf – he stops laugh­ing quite quickly though once we start. I’ve grown used to the open­mouthed as­ton­ish­ment of mu­si­cal direc­tors over the years – I even cocked up Away in a Manger at school.

There is hu­mour, pathos, pol­i­tics, nos­tal­gia, sus­pense – it has a flash­back, a cho­rus line and a bed­pan. What more does a play need?

Si­mon is Justin El­liott in The Archers; Al­lelu­jah! starts on Wednes­day

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