Déjà vu has never felt so eerie. There we were in June’s lockdown, undergoing a period of unprecedented crisis, and the only way to see our old friends was on a screen. Comfort came from those video calls. Then, from the TV – another technological lifeline – drifted other familiar voices, telling stories both old and new, but all with a melancholy wit and a downbeat humour that were inescapably recognisable. These were Alan Bennett’s classic television monologues, Talking Heads. And they’d been revived, re-polished and set before us once again in a season curated by Nicholas Hytner, longtime Bennett collaborator, former National Theatre chief and founding artistic director of the Bridge Theatre.
It was a clever choice in the time of Covid, and not just because a solo turn makes for much simpler social distancing. Here are characters who are predominantly trapped in their homes, who are lonely, frightened and so often waiting … waiting … feeling painfully powerless over their future. Back in 1988 when the first series of playlets aired on the BBC, they were swiftly established as modern classics. They became synonymous with the major acting talents who embodied them, among them Maggie Smith, Julie Walters and Thora Hird – alongside Bennett himself, whose desiccated humour and beady eye for the vivid and revelatory detail in the banal inform every one of them. A second series followed a decade later, once again featuring only a single man. The granting of so much solo screen time to the inner turmoil of women in itself felt unusual. Yet to 21st-century eyes and ears, these lives look unconvincingly circumscribed – the endless sad cardigans, the dominance of husbands (dead or alive), brothers and sons, the elusiveness of a meaningful existence beyond the domestic. Even a pair of brand-new pieces, added to the remounted selection from the two previous airings, did little to redress the rather dated air that hangs over them all like the whiff of Vim or Dettol, those standbys of yesteryear housewifery. But of one thing there was no question: The acting emerged from the shadows of those towering past performances gleaming, fresh and exquisite. And now that four of the productions have transferred to the Bridge’s stage for a live, socially distanced season – with four more still to come – they somehow seem more nuanced, more intimate and more moving than ever.
On a clean, uncluttered set by Bunny Christie, with the addition of a few props, a rippling piano underscore by George Fenton and an evocative video backdrop by Luke Halls, these tales of the ordinary, and the extraordinary that lies just beneath its drab, everyday surface, flip by in vivid snapshots, or unspool in reminiscence or subconscious confession. Light and shadow play across suburban windows. Respectable front doors conceal shocks and secrets.
The Shrine/Bed Among the Lentils
It was Maggie Smith who created the role of Susan, the deeply unhappy, alcoholic vicar’s wife in 1988’s Bed Among the Lentils, and it’s probably one of the most fully achieved and best-remembered of these dramas. So it’s no small feat that in Hytner’s staging, Lesley Manville manages to make you forget all about Smith. There is a corrosive anger in her portrayal that you can imagine churning and burning away in her stomach, alongside the sherry and the filched communion wine. Here is a highly intelligent, horribly frustrated woman trapped in a sterile marriage, a mere accoutrement to a clergyman who preaches the Christian dictum that God is love but shows precious little love to his spouse. She in turn regards him and his flock of adoring (and competitive) female parishioners with something like contempt. Surely he doesn’t believe the nonsense he burbles from the pulpit? Surely, as Susan puts it, “God is just the job.” Her misery is compounded by the humiliation into which her addiction leads her. A recollection of a terrible incident involving the tut-tutting ladies of the church flower-arranging committee is almost agonisingly cruel.
When she does find joy, it’s with an Asian shopkeeper, Ramesh, whose Hindu deities express all the sensuality and passion she yearns for in the chilly pews of her husband’s frigid church. Susan – and arguably Bennett – are guilty of exoticising Ramesh, of othering him. But Manville’s performance is devastating. Her skin looks bleached and stretched, her hair scraped back, her eyes haunted by all the opportunities she’s missed, the other selves she could have been. In the end, perhaps her brief taste of sweetness is just a greater torment.
In The Shrine, a new piece also directed by Hytner, we hear of one person, at least, who has managed to find freedom, even if it was poignantly short-lived. Monica Dolan plays Lorna, whose husband Clifford has recently been killed in a motorbike accident. As far as Lorna is concerned, Clifford’s jaunts just involved birdwatching. But as more details emerge, she discovers a man she barely knew – a man who went by the racier name of Cliff, not Clifford; who liked leather, and speed, and sharing egg and bacon sandwiches with a busty blonde fellow biker; who, when she thought he was out alone, always carried a second helmet in his pillion. Groping her way through the fog of grief, Lorna sets up a makeshift shrine to Clifford, and gradually learns to let him go, and to accept this alternative, phantom husband. As Dolan moves through pain and bewilderment to acceptance, we feel that for her, too, other possibilities might be opening up. It’s like the sun breaking through clouds, and if it’s not as piercing as its companion piece, it is quite lovely.
Outside Dog/The Hand of God
These two dramas are both from 1998, and if the second inhabits a world of barbed politesse and snobbery that feels well worn, Outside Dog, directed by Nadia Fall and performed by Rochenda Sandall, takes us somewhere truly terrifying. Marjory, married to an abattoir worker, has a ferocious cleaning compulsion. Her husband Stuart is devoted to his Alsatian dog, Tina – and while he treats his canine with affection, Marjory gets little more regard than an animal. He uses her for rough sex after mysterious nocturnal rambles with Tina. Soon it becomes clear that unspeakable violence is taking place, both inside and outside the home. As the extent of the horror dawns on her, Marjory is faced with a choice that is not just moral, but a matter of psychological struggle and survival. She’s caught like a rat in a trap. And far from showing us a victim, Sandall is a spitting, snarling fury, in a domestic tragedy that achieves almost classical savagery and stature. It is a chilling story that leaves you winded and sickened. And although Fall could direct with slightly more finesse – there’s a literalness to some of her staging that occasionally undercuts the power of the language and the imagery it evokes – Sandall is hair-raisingly terrific.
Jonathan Kent’s production of The Hand of God tears us away from Marjory’s obsessively bleached kitchen and deposits us in a genteel antiques shop, where Kristin Scott Thomas as supercilious dealer Celia presides over polished wooden furniture and chichi bric a brac. She has her eye on a local house that’s crammed with fine objects, if only the old lady who owns it all would do the decent thing and die. She sneers at her own customers. She fancies herself an impeachable expert and a doyenne of discernment. Her pride renders her ripe for a fall, and Celia’s imminent undoing could hardly be more obviously pointed out than when a tiny framed drawing of a finger falls into her possession. This is not one of Bennett’s subtler offerings, but Scott Thomas makes entertaining work of it, her self-satisfaction spiked with spite. And there’s just the faintest hint that perhaps – if she had a little more tenderness in her life – she wouldn’t be quite so preoccupied by petty games of one-upmanship.
Ahh, if, if … These pieces are filled with ungrasped opportunities, with chances passing by. They are not perfect, and they feel as if they reach out to us from the past. But reach out they do, even – or perhaps especially – now.
Talking Heads is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 October, and available to stream on BBC iPlayer.