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“Talking Heads” at the Bridge Theatre

Four out of eight… that’s not some strange rating for these shows, far from it, but the number I’ve managed to see in this series of Alan Bennett monologues. The tickets are reasonably priced, the staff on top of social distancing, and creative director Nicholas Hytner’s idea of bringing his lockdown TV shows to the stage (where they clearly belong) is a simply brilliant.

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils

First up is Monica Dolan’s brilliant portrayal of a grieving widow. Learning about her husband’s life – after his death – her version of Clifford the bird watcher has to expand to include Cliff the biker. The Shrine is sensitive and often funny. It’s classic Bennett territory, with plenty of wry observation. And an important point about how individual bereavement is.

The accompanying piece has Lesley Manville’s turn as an “upstanding Anglican lady”. Battles with her husband the Vicar, and his fan club parishioners, start well. But does competitive flower arranging sit uncomfortably alongside the AA meetings the character ends up at? It’s Manville who makes the extramarital affair here seem something magical. Another performance not to miss. Both pieces are directed with a sure hand by Hytner.

The Hand of God & The Outside Dog

Another piece is also mostly noticeable for its performance. Did you ever imagine Kristen Scott Thomas could ‘do’ frumpy? The Hand of God is a touch predictable but, with an affecting melancholic air there’s no doubt this is another of Bennett’s strong characters. Playing a small-time antiques dealer, with humour coming from her snobbery, is a real achievement on Scott Thomas’s part.

More impressive – as the performance is excellent and the writing surprising – is The Outside Dog where Bennett moves to less familiar ground. A serial killer’s wife, a role Rochenda Sandall gets lots from, in a script that twists like a thriller. It’s plot driven but note its brevity. While the TV might drag a serial out of something like this (and we’ve all seen plenty on Netflix lately) Bennett and director Nadia Fall cram mystery, drama and emotion in a quarter of an hour – fantastic!

There are four more big stars to come – Lucian Msamati, Imelda Staunton, Tamsin Grieg and Maxine Peake – in two more double bills. This may be bite size theatre, but the season is a big achievement.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Zach Harrison

“The Beast Will Rise” from Tramp Productions

While the cancellation of Philip Ridley’s The Beast of Blue Yonder is regrettable, this series of monologues – released weekly – features the cast due to perform his play and is admirable compensation.

Directed by Wiebke Green, the online project shows the breadth of Ridley’s imagination and his inimitable style. Full of vivid images and memorable phrases, the stories and sense of humour are unmistakable. 

Fantastic beasts and

Animals, and the animalistic in us, are joined with apocalyptic scenarios and touches of fairy tales in this collection.  There’s a sense of nature, including human nature, as dangerous but also magical.

Take Telescope (with beasts are in the stars and wildlife on the local common), a piece that Unique Spencer does so well with performing. Alongside a gruesome murder, Ridley gives us a brilliant take on agoraphobia.

There’s a telescope too in Night, a short piece with Tyler Conti playing a young man who is dying, that proves haunting without any touch of the supernatural. 

Dismemberment and exploitation, horror and fantasy are all combined. And there are laughs too, including a twisted childhood prank in Chihuahua that is downright bizarre. Another strong example (with Grace Hogg-Robinson’s excellent performance) is Zarabooshka; a “shrivel-free” character’s imagination consoles and disturbs by turns. 

Finding great storytelling

From poetic snippets like Snow and River to longer pieces with “terrible things” in a world gone mad, the stories destabilise expectations as well as entertain. 

Flights into fantasy can switch off an audience. Credit to Green and many of her cast for holding fast to the writing and making the pieces so engaging: Rachel Bright in Gators, Mirren Mack in Wound and Steve Furst in Performance with the same aim – gripping an audience and not letting go.

Standing out, not just because of its longer duration, Eclipse serves as a brilliant showcase for Mike Evans. A self-conscious exercise in storytelling, it’s a macabre tale with wonderful characters. Society has broken down – again – and “old world problems” come alongside cups of tea and creepy cravats. The twisted parallel with the Coronavirus (it’s the young who are infected here) shows Ridley’s wicked streak and creates tension.

The fecundity of Ridley’s creativity is remarkable but it is a matter of quality as well as quantity. Alongside post offices and jacket potatoes, Ridley combines strong observation, a powerful sense of community (albeit frequently a mob) and recognisable geography to ground his brand of incredible. 

It’s a pet theory of mine that Ridley is the playwright of his generation who will be looked at in the future. That this collection, made under far from ideal conditions, is so consistently strong makes The Beast Will Rise a major achievement.

Posted online from 2 April 2020

www.wearetramp.com