WORTH A LOOK?: *****
WHERE?: Bridge Theatre RUNTIME: 75 minutes (no interval)
WHEN?: 12/9 (matinee) runs to 22/9, season runs to 31/10/10
We’re inside a theatre and watching a production for the first time in 182 days and, although we’re wearing a mask, it’s exhilarating to be enjoying such a shared experience again albeit socially distanced in an audience of 250 where there would normally have been 900.
- Read on for reasons including why a COVID-19 consolation is that we have two new Talking Heads and this season
Back in 1988 when the 1st series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads aired on BBC1 they seemed to us to be less funny than the broad Northern comedy strokes of the much-missed Victoria Wood As Seen On TV but there is a despair and melancholy in the former’s work which is better appreciated by a longer life lived.
This venue staged Bennett’s last play over two years ago – Allelujah! – and a COVID-19 consolation is that it seems unlikely that without it the best of the Talking Heads series would have been re-imagined with a new cast for television with 2 new additions.
Dolan’s The Shrine is the better of the two new offerings (Sarah Lancashire’s shock-for-shock’s-sake An Ordinary Woman does not feature at the Bridge) and tells of widow Lorna whose birdwatching biker husband Clifford dies at a spot she decides to bear witness to his death until the arrival of an unexpected floral tribute sees her question her relationship.
Dolan won our Best Theatre Actress monsta last year and is versatile enough to be capable of comedy even when humour seems irretrievable.
The arrival of a fellow biker who knows her husband as ‘Cliff’ doesn’t play out as one thinks it might and the strength of Bennett’s writing is that he is confident enough to suggest a Hollywood ending and then to explain why it isn’t appropriate in this case.
The Shrine speaks to an idea, however uncomfortable, that even those who know us best might not necessarily know everything about us.
The empathy sings from the most believable of apparently minor details, the avocado, tomato and mozzarella sandwiches that Lorna makes Clifford that she pictures them both eating separately, while Cliff is chowing down on bacon and egg sarnies with someone whom Lorna is later to meet.
The strength of the writing is that although the subject matter doesn’t sound especially funny it does provoke smiles – Lorna asks whether promised counselling would be from the RAC – while even audible laughs can be heard thanks to a turn of phrase or a shared thought.
Dolan caught our eye performing her own monologue two years ago and she’s an accomplished storyteller comfortable drawing in an audience never suspecting how difficult what she is doing apparently so effortlessly is.
Maggie Smith was nominated for a BAFTA for her turn as vicar’s wife Susan, here performed by Lesley Manville, in Bed Among The Lentils in 1988 and, in our view, it’s arguably Bennett’s strongest work.
We loved Manville in BBC2’s Mum, appreciated her powerhouse performance in Long Day’s Journey Into Night but pulled out of seeing a preview performance of hers at the National in The Visit at the National because of the extraordinarily long running time.
Now, of course, in six months with barely any live theatre to enjoy such behaviour looks foolhardy.
Her Susan if forever thwarted by her egotistical husband, comes under suspicion when the communion wine goes missing, is at odds with the fan club surrounding the vicar not least their competitive flower arranging that results in a hilarious ‘forest murmurs’ moment.
Bennett draws parallels between the fanaticism of Alcoholics’ Anonymous and the church, is brave enough to allow his heroine to find solace in the company of an Indian shopkeeper and even to allow ‘Mrs Vicar’ a triumphant moment to wonder why no-one ever asks if she believes in God.
Manville is so good because she simply inhabits the part. We’re not thinking of her other great roles because she’s so convincing here and now as a woman whose vulnerability inevitably becomes her loathesome husband’s trump card.
The Bridge has a history of doing monologues well, we’re thinking Laura Linney rather than Maggie Smith, and in many ways the versatility of this venue means it can work artistically when slightly more than a quarter full although whether it makes any commercial sense remains to be seen.
Bennett was writing testing and triumphant leading roles for women long before it became apparent that there was a dearth of such work and this reboot of some of his greatest hits is a timely reminder that theatre doesn’t have to be a riot of complicated staging to tickle the ribs and empathise with those at the heart of some truly affecting tales.