The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils – Review
Lockdown has created a tsunami of cultural devastation in the UK. It has been disastrous for our arts infrastructure and for the creatives, technical and service staff who have turned London into the premier global arts destination.
The Bridge Theatre, perched near City Hall between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, has gamely reopened with a repertoire of 12 one-person plays, 8 of which have been taken from Alan Bennett’s lockdown BBC 1 hit, the Talking Heads monologues. The stellar cast is just as in the TV shows and includes Tamsin Greig, Maxine Peake, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Imelda Staunton. The season is set to be the first post-lockdown socially distanced smash hit and to help out the theatre Alan Bennett has magnanimously waived his royalty. Much of the seating at the Bridge has been removed creating a quasi-cabaret feel and of course, everyone is masked up; but there is a palpable sense of excitement as the lights dim and the strains of George Fenton’s melancholic piano score waft over us
The first of the two pieces is entitled The Shrine and stars Monica Dolan as Lorna, a recent widow whose late husband Clifford has died in an unwitnessed motorbike accident. Set in Lorna’s kitchen we are in classic Bennett territory. The familiar cadences of his writing are dramatic comfort food with the flatness of the vowels being matched by the flatness of emotion. Lorna is feeling disconnected from any sense of grief and so decides to bear witness to Clifford’s passing by constructing a shrine at the very place that he came off his bike. The location is an anonymous grassy verge adjacent to an A road, suggested by Luke Hall’s allusive projections on the screens that frame Bunny Christie’s effective set. Lorna’s vigil is disrupted by several unseen (to us) visitors who gently inform her that there was more to the meek, bird-watching Clifford than she knew.
Bennett’s writing for Talking Heads gently lets the revelations unfurl. Dolan’s beautifully nuanced performance moves from an understated numbness to confusion and finally resolution as she finds out that Clifford’s alter ego Cliff was living a very different life to the one she had imagined. This acceptance is charmingly synthesised in the image of Lorna using Clifford’s two motorcycle helmets, only one of which she knew about, as a planter as she moves on.
Bed Among the Lentils, the second play of the pair starring Lesley Manville, also traces a woman’s journey of discovery. Susan is a lonely vicar’s wife who feels depressed, dowdy and unable to compete with her husband’s fan club of devoted female parishioners at traditional Anglican competitive sports such as jam making and flower arranging. Susan takes solace in secretly drinking the Communion wine with hilarious results. She also finds love and something of a sexual awakening in the arms of 26-year old Mr Ramesh, a much younger local Indian shopkeeper with good legs and a bed at the back of his emporium. It is Ramesh, concerned that Susan is always drunk when they make love, that brings about her acceptance of her alcoholism and subsequent treatment.
There is much to love in Bennett’s writing and Manville is exquisitely comic at the opening of this piece. However, when it comes handling such visceral issues such as race and alcohol abuse, Bennett’s twee worldview feels out of touch with the world beyond his bubble. Manville’s performance isn’t able to mine the depths of addiction and shame that would be a gift to an actress of her power, instead of being a mouthpiece for Bennett’s amusingly world-weary witticisms.
Nicholas Hytner’s low-key direction for both plays keeps the focus on the characters’ journeys and despite my caveats about Bed Among the Lentils, this pair of monologues from Talking Heads is still a splendid evening’s entertainment. And it’s wonderful to be back in the theatre!
The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils – 7 September – 22 September 2020
Talking Heads Live
The Bridge Theatre
3 Potters Fields Park
London, SE1 2SG
Looking for somewhere to eat in the area? We recommend Oxo Tower Restaurant or the next door Brasserie