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.
www.bridgetheatre.com for full programme.