Bed Among the Lentils

Alex Cusack as Susan in Alan Bennett's 'Bed Among the Lentils'.

Alex Cusack as Susan in Alan Bennett's 'Bed Among the Lentils'.

Susan introduces herself to us, in homely cardigan and handbag, as the hapless wife of Geoffrey, a vicar on the outskirts of Leeds. She switches on a table lamp (in Peter Reid’s simple sitting room design) and begins to sip enthusiastically from her sherry glass while sharing her story of a bleached life in the parochial vicarage. She exhibits plenty of self deprecation and awareness, damning perception and laser wit, all features she shares with Alan Bennett’s clinically brilliant script.

Talking Heads were written in the late 1980s for BBC television: telling stories, the interior minds of individual characters illuminated by Bennett’s parsing of their dreams and defeatism. He never sides with those taking the high moral ground, rather his empathy and delight are with those whose lives fall into the socially incongruous and the oppositional. In fact, he seems to revel at the ‘fly in the ointment’ especially if it breaches narrow social etiquette or a sanctimonious moral code and creates ‘a turn up for the books.’ We sense quickly that Susan, too, occupies one of those awkward corner of a conventional world, playing a role which does not suit her.

Alex Cusack of AC Productions, however, does suit the role of Susan in this show upstairs at the International Bar, although it takes her a while to comfortably inhabit the character. It is a pity the skill she shows in the latter half of the play might have been more evenly spread across the full performance. In the beginning, under Peter Reid’s direction, I felt we were rushing headlong into a narrative, laced with wit and well-painted frustration but which concerned someone who was not on stage.

As the story proceeds, we learn how Susan reserves much of her altar wine fuelled irritation for Geoffrey’s “fan club” as she tags them. These are the busybody ladies who cluster cloyingly around every church event and her husband like a parish bazaar jam. It all comes to a crescendo in an episode concerning altar flower arranging. Here, the human voice and Bennett’s language should rise in perfect pitch to create an indelible image of the object of her irritation: the overdressed sylvan installation 'Forest Murmurs'. But, in Cusack’s rendering of the tale and Susan’s searingly witty if inappropriate response, we miss the touch of pathos – her awareness that it all sadly underlines her own inadequacies as a vicar’s wife.

But as Bennett draws us closer to the downhill slide of Susan’s life, Cusack begins to slow down and become Susan, seeping in the subtle contradictions. Her understated account of how she begins an affair with the young Asian grocer, in whose small shop she goes to replenish the sherry stocks, was infused with all the strangeness of self discovery and delight at a small transgression. We understand perfectly that Susan realises this was not so much a last bid for freedom as the long repressed walk on the wild side and an aching for love.

Although she admires Ramesh Ramesh’s good teeth and fine legs in among the sacks of lentils, Cusack’s demeanour and finetuned delivery hint at the tenderness, forgiveness and gentle affection she gained in this brief encounter, so absent from her detached and slightly sanctimonious husband. And, though it is all bound to end badly, she has her secret; she found her own unlikely spiritual leader who helps her find her way. So, as we witness her address the local AA meeting (I am Susan, I am an alcoholic) we sense she has the means to sustain herself through a relentless future with the predictably forgiving vicar.

Christian forbearance, a favourite sermon theme of Geoffrey I am sure, was surely practised by this actress on the night of this viewing, The piercing shriek of a car alarm from the outside street would have tried the patience never mind the concentration of lesser mortals.

Seona MacRéamoinn is a journalist and critic.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Bed Among the Lentils by Alan Bennett

15 - 27 November, 2010

Produced by AC Productions
In the International Bar

Directed by Peter Reid

With: Alex Cusack