Lloyd Evans

Enjoyable but hardly classic Alan Bennett: The Outside Dog & The Hand of God reviewed

Plus: the short, bland title gives no indication of the sweep and grandeur of Rose, starring Maureen Lipman

Enjoyable but hardly classic Alan Bennett: The Outside Dog & The Hand of God reviewed
Kristin Scott Thomas as Celia in Alan Bennett's Hand of God. Image: BBC / London Theatre Company / Zac Nicholson
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The Outside Dog & The Hand of God

Bridge Theatre


Hope Mill Theatre, via Vimeo

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.’

Rose has a sharp eye for a laugh, especially at moments of high pathos. Her father finally passed away after a cupboard full of treatments toppled on to him. ‘He was crushed to death by medicine.’ At the age of 13, she had to hide while a mob of anti-Semitic Kazakhs raided the family home and destroyed their property. ‘My first period and my first pogrom came on the same day.’ In her late teens she settled in Warsaw and married a handsome, struggling painter. When the Nazis arrived, she was unconcerned. How could the Germans be worse than the Kazakhs? Within weeks, she was confined to a single room in the Warsaw ghetto alongside 11 other Jews. A few months later, she was mourning the death of her husband and the execution of Esther, her three-year-old daughter. The Nazis had set up a fake soup kitchen to lure hungry children to their deaths. She survived the war by hiding in the city’s sewers. In 1947 she found herself on a ship bound for Palestine under the hostile gaze of a British destroyer. The navy’s orders were to prevent refugees from reaching land. Sailors forced their way on board and attacked the passengers with clubs. Rose watched as a teenage boy, a Holocaust survivor, was shot in the stomach by a British rifle. Finally she made it to Palestine, dropped on her knees and kissed the earth of the Promised Land. Five hours later she was deported. But this takes us barely a quarter of the way through her epic struggle.

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.