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