Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are well known for exploring the darker themes of society and the people within it. Bed Among the Lentils is no exception, diving into the alcoholism and infidelity which shape vicar’s wife, Susan’s (Lesley Manville) life. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, this dark, comic piece, particularly explores the role of the church in the sex lives of its parishioners and life behind the closed door of the vicarage.
Opening in a tidy and old-fashioned kitchen, we meet Susan, a heavy smoker and heavy drinker, modestly, and somewhat drably, dressed, as she talks about her marriage to local vicar, Geoffrey. Black comedy is present from the start, as she describes Geoffrey’s recent sermon which explained how the institution of marriage gives a licence to sex and having sex is allowed, as long as, like everything else, you offer it up to God.
When the off licence around the corner becomes far less friendly towards her, Susan starts driving to Leeds on a regular basis and buying her alcohol from a shop owned by Mr Ramesh, a 26 year old Indian immigrant whose wife has been denied entry into the UK. Her relationship with Mr Ramesh leads her to tentatively explore another religion and culminates in a sexual awakening which leads her to face up to her issues with alcohol.
Manville adopts a lovely conspiratorial tone throughout the piece, giving a feeling that she is sharing deeply intimate gossip. A faraway look when she quotes scripture emphasises her doubts about religion and gives a sense of boredom with tradition for tradition’s sake. You really do get the sense that life has passed by without her, and she has literally woken up that morning in her present circumstances without ever thinking about it at all.
The embarrassment she feels when Geoffrey’s “fan club” judge her is palpable. This group of more accomplished women, with their certified jam making, cake baking, flower arranging and first aid skills, irritate Susan with their condescension and nosiness, and humiliate her with their sycophantic offers of “help”. Geoffrey revels in the attention of the Parish, and fully exploits every opportunity to draw attention to his daily trials living with Susan.
This is a disturbing piece which draws you in and holds you tight within its grasp. Unbearably tragic, Manville gives Susan a rich life which is fully exposed in the depth of her haunting eyes.
All twelve plays are available to watch now on BBC iPlayer https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p08ftkkx/alan-bennetts-talking-heads
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 1st July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★