The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils review – silent screams from Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville

Bridge theatre, London
The wide-open space of the Bridge is commanded with riveting intimacy in one of four Talking Heads double bills

The sheer success of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads makes them easy to underestimate. The monologues were praised when first televised 32 years ago, and again when broadcast, recast, in June. They are studied in schools. They seem to be institutionalised. But they have always been rebels.

The title is a rebuke to the entrenched assumption that audiences want to goggle, not to listen. The idea that a not-young woman in a not-fashionable frock might deliver an intricate chronicle is still rare. Nicholas Hytner, one of several directors in this season of four double bills starring the new television casts, defies another rule: proving that intimate pieces can, without gee-ing up the theatricality, be absorbing in a large space.

Catastrophe spoken about quietly. Mugs of tea and Jesus Christ riding pillion. Crushed hopes and sharp tongues. This is a layered, comic and disturbing evening, featuring two of our most subtle actresses. Neither Monica Dolan nor Lesley Manville seem to radiate: they distil.

There is a lovely movement to Dolan’s delivery of The Shrine, one of two new pieces, written last year. She begins in grief: her husband has just been killed in a road accident. She moves into bemusement as she discovers placid hubby was not so much a bird-watcher as a biker: she is like someone watching a perplexing telly series. “What Clifford!?” she exclaims when a policeman tells her that her husband ejaculated just before his death. She ends in desolation, tormented by half-knowledge. Yet she is not capsized: her sentences never stop needling.

In the part originally played by Maggie Smith, Lesley Manville looks as if she has had the blood sucked from her by the vampire Respectability. Some of the satire of Bed Among the Lentils – with its congregation of priest-worshipping flower arrangers – has faded since the 1980s. What is triumphantly alive is the realisation that God is no champion of good taste.

Talking Heads continues at the Bridge theatre, London, until 31 October


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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