“Of course, they’ve picked this all up off the television.” Antiques-shop owner Celia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is as dismissive as she is amusingly sniffy about her customers who, versed in the lingo of Antiques Roadshow and other TV staples, affect to know the tricks of the trade. But in “The Hand of God,” that line now has unexpected additional resonance since this Alan Bennett monologue, written in 1998 for his BBC television series of individual half-hour mono-dramas “Talking Heads,” is now on stage. Paired with another monologue from the series, “The Outside Dog,” it delivers surprising theatrical punch.
In response to lockdown, Bennett’s long-time directing partner Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of George III,” “The History Boys”) teamed up with Kevin Loader and the BBC to produce new actors in the best of Bennett’s two series of “Talking Heads” from 1988 and 1998, as well as presenting two additional monologues. Following their June broadcast, eight of them are now playing in repertoire at Hytner’s Bridge Theatre in tandem with four other monologues, including Ralph Fiennes in David Hare’s COVID19 monologue “Beat the Devil.”
“The Outside Dog,” the opener, is the fiercest of the two monologues, which is hardly surprising given its subject matter. Rochenda Sandall, best known for her unflinching villain in “Line of Duty,” is hygiene-obsessed wife Margery. The more she is troubled by life at home, the more she cleans. And, very quietly, beneath Margery’s surfaces, Bennett reveals real trouble, initially in the shape of Tina. No, not a rival, but her husband Stuart’s Alsatian dog, who annoys the neighbors almost as much as she does Margery — who resents the attention and time Stuart lavishes upon her.
Tina and Stuart sometimes spend hours out together, coming back dirty enough for her husband to need to put his clothes in the washing machine before coming up to bed and demanding sex.
Margery’s patiently told story pits life inside the house against details of the surrounding neighborhood – including, in passing, the fact that a local killer is on the loose. Bennett deftly drops in just enough tiny clues so that, feasting on her every word, the audience fills in the gaps and joins the dots. We jump ahead of Margery in identifying the killer, and the gap between our knowledge and Margery’s denial ratchets up the tension to a near-unbearable degree.
Our understanding of and investment in her plight is all the stronger for Bennett’s handling of exposition: It’s suggestive rather than spoken. What’s not said is far louder and more gripping than what is. As the story keeps cutting forward, tiny details from earlier in the story form themselves wordlessly into a metaphorical noose slipping around Sandall’s neck. By the end she’s taut with terror.
Celia’s tale is similarly built around self-knowledge, or, rather, lack thereof. Scott Thomas brims with pleasing self-satisfaction even as she confides in us that business in her little shop is not what it once was. She lets us in as she delights in sharing her understanding of how her sophistication is several notches above those in the community around her.
Bennett plays an entertaining game with both his character and our sympathies as Celia sees an escape from her increasing financial woes in the form of a possible savior: an elderly neighbor who, she whispers, is not only near death but has no known relatives and is surrounded by wildly saleable valuables. In short, a goldmine which Celia is not going to let out of her sight.
With more than a glint of complicity in her eye, Scott Thomas positively sparkles. Like Sandall, only more so, she plays off the live audience, consistently raising big laughs where the silence of a TV studio allowed for mere wry amusement.
She makes Celia entirely attractive while reveling in her character’s sly deceit. The layered nature of Scot Thomas’s performance in director Jonathan Kent’s nicely shaded production is so engaging that by the time of her unexpected comeuppance, audiences are left in a state of satisfying complexity, a cross between just deserts and sadness.
With seating reduced for social distancing from 900 down to 250, the actors have to energize more than the usual amount of atmosphere. It’s to their immense credit that rather than over-modulating their performances, they draw the audience to them to fill the space. If we cannot, for the moment, fill houses with audiences, having solos of this distinction is considerably better than second-best.