The Shrine/Bed Among The Lentils
Bridge Theatre, London ★★★★✩
THE monologue is fast becoming the live art form for our times. It’s socially distanced-compliant, for one thing, but also captures a solitariness many of us can relate to, largely confined as we are to our houses and feeling often alone, even when surrounded by screaming kids.
The two in this double bill by master of the genre, Alan Bennett, were recently aired on BBC1 and kick-start a mini season at the Bridge. Naturally they are wonderful, full of vigour and sadness and offer a chance, too, to see Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville by themselves, in full command, on stage.
Dolan has the harder task. The Shrine, written in 2019, is a slighter work, about a newly widowed late-middle aged woman in a cardigan in her kitchen (in true Bennett fashion), slowly realising her Clifford, killed in a motorbike accident, might not have been the man she thought he was.
Quietly spoken, but with streaks of salt and steel, she finds the sting in every revelatory thought process as she confronts the possibility she and her husband might have shared a different, better life. Too late now.
The promise of something better beyond the horizon also hovers in Bed Among The Lentils, in which Manville relishes every sour and gleeful note as a vicar’s wife knocking back the communion wine and whatever else she can find in a vain bid to stave off the boredom of arranging the flowers each week. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance of provincial church culture will delight in Bennett’s waspish observations, while Manville tugs at the heart when recalling her improbable, short-lived affair with an Indian grocer.
Bennett’s knack for combining the monotony of the everyday with a flash of something absurdly glorious, like seeing a bird of paradise alight on a supermarket car park, matches the needs of the moment as much as ever.