The season of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads continues at the Bridge. In The Hand of God we meet Celia, a posh antiques dealer, who befriends old maids in the hope of acquiring their valuables cheaply. Like everyone in her trade she uses play-acting and mind games to give her the advantage while haggling. If her enemy falters, she pounces. A man visits her shop and becomes visibly excited by a framed drawing which Celia hoped to flog for £30. Spotting his eagerness, she trebles the price. He pays up and hurries out. Later she learns that the drawing was by an old master whose style she failed to recognise. Millions have slipped through her fingers.
Kristin Scott Thomas is well cast as this suburban snake in the grass. All the visuals are beautifully judged. Celia, in her mid-fifties, wears a costume of soft autumn shades with a discreetly colourful scarf loosely knotted around her neck. Her strawberry blonde highlights are attractive but, above all, expensively attractive. Scott Thomas conveys the character’s polished hypocrisy but she also converts her into an unlikely heroine, a tragicomic figure who invites our sympathy and understanding. In the closing moments she admits to having embraced the sideline she most despises in antiques dealers — selling chutney.
The Outside Dog features Marjory, a hyperactive Yorkshirewoman, who keeps her council house spotlessly clean. Her husband, Stewart, works in a slaughterhouse and takes their dog for a long walk every night. Could he be linked to a spate of local murders? Marjory suspects nothing but the production helps us out by adding a sinister tinkle of piano music whenever a Big Clue about the killings is mentioned.
This is an enjoyable show but it’s hardly classic Bennett. The crime genre doesn’t suit him and he has little sympathy for the coarse, quarrelsome Marjory who seems like a hothead from a TV soap. Bennett’s observational gift always delivers a few gems. Here’s Marjory evoking the coldness of marital love after sexual desire has faded. ‘He wakes up again later and has another go.’
Rose by Martin Sherman has a big problem which is probably beyond fixing. The short, bland title gives no indication of the story’s sweep and grandeur. This is a tale as large as Doctor Zhivago and it encompasses many of the geopolitical tragedies of the 20th century. The staging is simple. Rose (Maureen Lipman) sits on a plain wooden bench and recounts her life history with dogged, thick-skinned humour. ‘I’m 80 years old,’ she begins. ‘Breathing is one of the few pleasures I have left.’ She was born in 1920 to a family of Ukrainian Jews. Her mother was tight-lipped and hard-working. Her father suffered from a series of unnamed diseases. ‘He was in bed for years. He never stopped dying.’
The show is an amazing tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. As a family tale it’s full of insights and heart-rending surprises. The recording was made in an empty theatre but Maureen Lipman is so skilful and experienced that she can indicate where the laughs are coming. There may be no sound from the crowd and yet you can hear them.