Bridge Theatre, London – Running in rep until 31 October 2020
One of the darkest and one of the merriest. Playing Sandwiches is an even more than usually sombre one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. I well remember the shock of it on TV first time round. Then it was David Haig as the amiable park-keeper who gradually let us know why his work papers were not in order, why he had moved around and was not a family godparent – and at last how succumbing to his weakness for small girls put his final scene in a prison cell.
It was a brave piece (years later I talked with Haig about doing it at a time of knife-edge horror about paedophilia). And the interest of it centres on the way that in early scenes the man with the broom expresses his disgust at the sluttish, condom-chucking sexual libertarianism, whose detritus he daily helps to clear. Not enough is ever said about the way that our newly enfranchised, judgement-free attitude to sex and its variants leaves “perverts” even lonelier in their dangerous taboo desires than even half a century ago.
Performed live, it should have even more shocking punch, and Lucien Msamati is one of our finest actors (will never forget his Master Harold and the Boys at the NT last autumn). But somehow it doesn’t quite gel. Maybe he is too amiable, lacking the edge of primness which in the original raised the thoughts above about the the paradox of sexual liberty. He is too likeable, too light in his condemnations. Only in the prison scenes does Msamati remind us he is a great actor, evoking that Bennettian quiet despair which is in its way as noble as any heroism.
Lady Of Letters is a wisely placed contrast in this pair, and rapidly produces those marvellous ripples of laughter which remind us why we’re watching these TV-created shows in a real theatre. Which buzzes, despite the distancing, with the comradely magic sharing we have so hungered for under Covid. Imelda Staunton has Irene to a T: the thwarted, lonely, disapproving busybody writing of letters of complaint to public bodies and shading before our eyes into a poison-pen.
Staunton absolutely knows how to work the top Bennett jokes, like the description of a vicar’s unwanted visit and the splendid tale of interaction with Westminster Council cleansing department. We forget that letter-writing is a bit pre-Internet dated, as is the responsiveness of the Council. But this treasurable actor also knows how, with nothing but a rigid face and long long pause, to handle the central shock: the first comeuppance, the one I won’t spoil for newcomers.
So it’s bliss. But also particularly blissful because this is the very nearest our Alan ever gets to giving us a happy fairytale ending: a full-on unapologetic redemption. I’m a sucker for those. I left very happy.
It’s my third Bridge visit in this strange etiolated season – getting a bit expensive, so I may not make the other six Bennetts. My admiration for what Hytner and Starr have done is boundless. Seats placed in distanced clutches , drinks brought to you (my husband loves it, says it’s like Club Class, and won’t listen when I shout “but it’s financially ruinous! Got to get bums on seats or there’ll be no theatre! “). Elegant use is made of projection, top performers hired, direction artfully theatrical not telly, and the atmosphere laid back and safe.
With the West End dark and real fear for theatre’s survival, trips to the – unsubsidised, gallant – Bridge are sustaining.
www.bridgetheatre.co.uk Running in rep.
rating Sandwiches 3 Lady of Letters 5 average 4