Monthly Archives: September 2020

TALKING HEADS The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils Bridge SE1

 So what would it be like, to be back?  How does it feel to be in a 900 seat theatre but distanced, over half the chairs vanisshed? And how would it feel to watch a couple of Alan Bennett “Talking Heads”, monologues made specifically for television? Could these narrative shows, minimal in movement and free from dramatic event,  be interestingly transposed to the live stage? How would director Nicholas Hytner work it, after he and the other directors and designers achieved the bravura TV feat of using the EastEnders set and getting the cast to do their own hair ’n make-up, all  in near-lockdown conditions? Was it just an act of hope and defiance? Its first monologue show, after all (see below) was all about Covid-19: Fiennes delivering David Hare’s mixture of memoir and agit-prop. Would this Talking Head series be just a desperate, unsatisfying rehashed potboiler?   

        Look, I am a Hytner loyalist,  but I did wonder.  And I was wrong.  The hour-and-a-quarter flew by, absorbing and thrilling and touching and – here was the surprise – amid the Bennettian wry pathos the playlets were often enormously funny.  Not that they weren’t on TV, in a head-nodding sort of way, but one didn’t often laugh aloud.  Here was evidence that even  a scattered  audience has the old communal magic,  as pleasure was redoubled by shared giggles and some real barks of laughter at the two women’s  dry, regretful observations. Often about men. While not actually milking the good lines in any disgraceful way,  both performers definitely made the most of them,  understood their pauses, did it for us who were there.

        Monica Dolan opened with one of the two new ones, The Shrine:  an ordinary widow grieving a husband who she gradually realises had a parallel life amid the biker community. With simple, dreamy projections throwing the occasional hint behind her,  she expressed the pathos and the pragmatism of grief: the absurdities and tactlessnesses of officialdom and  the way being looked at by a sheep or flown over by a kite at the fatal roadside can be a kind of consolation.   

          Then, after the briefest of scene-changes, we had the posher and more irritable heroine of Bed Among the Lentils. Lesley Manville was the wife of the most offensively vicar-y Anglican vicar ever.  He, as she wandered about fag in hand,  glass never far from her, shopping bag clinking, rose to become an invisible but horribly comic personality in his own right as she related her way through the boredom, alcoholism, and remarkably erotic depictions of a fling with Ramesh the grocer in Leeds.  When she observed in passing that “if you think squash is a competitive occupation, try flower arranging” we actually howled.  And, mentally, raised a Tio Pepe to her and all her kind.   

     It was wonderful to be back. This one runs to the 22nd,  and then there are more Bennetts, plus other monologues.  Feel the love.  I’ll get to any I can.     for full programme.       

rating   five


Comments Off on TALKING HEADS The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils Bridge SE1

Filed under Five Mice, Theatre




    After nine months’ exile – my chemotherapy ended slap bang at the start of lockdown –  I felt like the Ancient Mariner, good to be back:

        “O dream of joy! Is this indeed a lighting box I see?  

         Is this a stage, is this a show?   Is this mine own countree?” 

         Across Steve Tompkin’s elegant theatre seats have been weeded out and an audience  scattered into pairs or family groups, with the occasional Billy-no-mates like me in solitary splendour in a single comfortable seat in the emptiness.  Leg-room enough for a giraffe.  Onstage three pale screens cast a ghostly bluish light on our masked half-human faces .  Gallant, risk-taking commercial theatre at least is back, as the sad old NT  and South Bank upriver still lie quiet in a blanket of subsidy. 

          The distancing is not the only limit, of course:   for the Bridge a season of one-person shows, minimally set,  lies ahead. There are Talking Heads revivals plus  Yolanda Mercy, Inua Ellams, Zodwa Nyoni.  And Covid-19 must have its say to start with, so off goes the season with Ralph Fiennes directed by Nicholas Hytner and delivering a monologue by David Hare.  It’s about Hare catching the disease (early on), suffering sixteen days and watching the government’s management with rising fury.   Unkind voices have summed it up as “Old bloke gets bad ‘flu, blames Tories”.  Which is of course unfair: it’s worse than ‘flu.  And, importantly, it was  baffling to everybody,  because it’s new.

      Actually, the most interesting parts of Hare’s beautifully written tale are about that newness, though when he first got it – in mid-March – there had not been as much medical information filtering through as there has been later.  We now know the curiosity that many patients can have dangerously low blood-oxygen levels and seem almost OK ,  not as breathless as you’d expect,    though bad damage is being done to their organs in a “cytokine storm”.     It’s a reason to have an oximeter as well as a thermometer at home, and spot early when the oxygen drops towards and below 90.    ((For an easy digest of the science, here’s mine in the Times: weeks later:

        Hare tells how after catching this “piece of bad news wrapped in protein”  in the noisome stuffiness of an editing suite – West End cupboards these are, heated by the machinery – he went through a fairly common experience of being hit hard in the second week.      At first he was ‘air-hungry” but expecting a restful ‘flu, with old war films on telly (“Noel Coward in white shorts pretending to be a captain”)  and thinking, five days in, that he was fit to cook the family supper.   His fever soared,  his fear and anger grew. At one point he refused to go into hospital because people there caught Covid, though  as his GP pointed out, he already had it.  His tribute to his wife Nicole is touching:  as his temperature fell dangerously from a bad spike she laid on him to warm him. Not, as he dryly observes, a woman prone to observing social-distancing in his supposed isolation.  

       It is funnier, more likeable than some reports have suggested and well worth the fifty masked minutes.  Hare’s politics are no surprise,  and there is real perception in his description of Boris Johnson “struggling with his instincts” as a libertarian locking down the nation he had longed to lead,  as the virus is “clearly retro-fitted to find out his weaknesses”.     He rants about the unpreparedness, the PPE shortages, the failure of early testing, the absurd permission for those Cheltenham Festival days.   It seems to him sometimes that the government is deeper in delirium than he is himself.  Across the Atlantic there is Trump, enraging him still more.   

        It’s all true, and refreshing, and  beautifully made, and one has to be glad that on day 16 Hare  revived .Though he still realized he was unfit for ordinary work quite yet – like running the country, as Boris Johnson did, amid a Cabinet for whom, he observes,  the word mediocrity was too flattering.   He sorrows for the victims who died.  He is uncritically adoring of Merkel and Ardern but does not mention Sweden.  Sometimes he fudges the timescale:  when talking of his tenth day –  March 26th –  he rages against the unrepentance of the government over the high death rate in the second week of May.  As a point that is reasonable, as storytelling it’s a bit of a cheat.

     But it was a barnstorming hour, and Fiennes delivers it perfectly.  Power to the Bridge.   to 30 Oct

rating    four        

Comments Off on BEAT THE DEVIL Bridge, SE1

Filed under Four Mice, Theatre