mon 22/07/2024

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils, Bridge Theatre review - loneliness shared, with wit and melancholy | reviews, news & interviews

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils, Bridge Theatre review - loneliness shared, with wit and melancholy

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils, Bridge Theatre review - loneliness shared, with wit and melancholy

Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville are peerless in this Alan Bennett double bill

Monica Dolan as Susan in 'The Shrine' (BBC version)Both images by Zac Nicholson

Monologues and duets rule the stage right now. We can only dream of the day when theatre steps up to the classical music scene’s boldness and manages to have more performers gathered together, albeit suitably distanced (not so easy when the drama needs physical contact, though there are plenty of plays that don’t).

That said, it would be hard to imagine a more impressive roster of performers than the magnificent Bridge Theatre has managed to summon for its one-person season. None can be better than Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville in this instalment of its four Alan Bennett Talking Heads double bills.

Even had you not seen both in the recent BBC series (still available on iPlayer) you would probably be familiar with Bed Among the Lentils in its original 1988 incarnation with Maggie Smith – 32 years have not withered it – while one of the two newcomers to the series, The Shrine, appeared recently in the London Review of Books. There’s all the more wonder, then, in the subtly heartbreaking nuances Dolan brings to a script in which any hint of Bennett’s occasional laughs at the expense of the character seems, at least in this performance, entirely absent. It takes a minute or so to adjust to the distance between the spaced-out audience, at least from the back of the stalls-with-teeth-missing – the acoustics for the voice in intimate confessional are not as immediate as I’d been expecting – but that makes you listen all the harder to the low-key nuances.

It's certainly vital at this of all thimes for Nicholas Hytner at the Bridge to engage stage crew and designers; Bunny Christie's movable panels have singular video projections by the sterling Luke Halls. But everything we need to see in the picture Dolan’s Lorna paints of the rural scene where husband Cliff died on a (motor) biking expedition – to go bird-watching, or so she has believed – is there in the words and their consummate delivery. The skid marks in the road which her shrine-making doesn’t want transgressed, the circling kite, the field of sheep: Dolan summons them all (the moment when my eyes pricked with tears was when Lorna asks the visiting biker vicar not to bless the deceased or the tree by the bench but the sheep). The study in bereavement is all the more potent for its complexity: does Lorna feel grief or only loneliness? And the decision to bear witness has its own kind of quiet heroism, not exactly dented but transformed by meeting a surprising fellow mourner. Lesley Manville in Bed Among the LentilsThe tone of Bed Among the Lentils is more robustly comic: Manville’s deadpan vicar’s wife, looking back on her misadventures and brief moments of happiness while under the influence of the sherry and the communion wine, maintains a tone of scathing sarcasm towards her hypocritical husband that invites our complicit laughter. The depths here are sounded in her awed tenderness towards the Indian grocer – 26, lovely legs, loving words – who creates for them both the situation of the title. At least George Fenton's surplus-to-need sentimental music, always a Hytner habit, doesn’t turn sitarish at this point. The speech is all; and Bennett’s text, with Bed Among the Lentils already a classic, will repay revisiting – and preferably to the Bridge, not just on the iPlayer. Certainly the cathartic sense of loneliness shared in these plays could not be more timely or welcome.  

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