Theatre review: The Outside Dog & The Hand of God

Two beautifully observed monologues win five stars from John Nathan



In literary circles there is currently a trend that takes the write-what-you-know dictum to a new level.  Authors must now draw on lived experience for their work to be seen as authentic, or even belong to the demographic or ethnicity of their protagonist to avoid the charge of appropriation.  

This is a view that increasingly exists in theatre too, though thankfully Alan Bennett’s 1998 Talking Heads monologue was written when imaginative empathy for a protagonist –  in this case an abused, working class woman -  was still all that was needed for a work to be judged as true.

Her name is Marjory and her husband Stuart works in a local abattoir and might be a serial killer.   And despite Bennett being the opposite of Marjory, if there is such a thing,  the play couldn’t be more more authentic if it were carbon dated.

Marjory was played by Julie Walters when the work was first seen on TV in 1998.  In Nadia Fall’s terrific new production Rochenda Sandall is the tough, emotionally bruised woman with house-cleaning OCD. 

All the talking takes place in her colourless home.  As she tells of her struggle to keep the place clean and her husband’s dog out of the house, the closely observed ticks and mannerisms would normally be rich material for a wry Bennettian comedy.  But no.  Between scenes the piece pivots on the sound of a boiling kettle – tea being a favourite prop of the author. The boiling rises to a cacophony until this most comforting of rituals is a cauldron.

Marjory is aware of the reports of a local serial killer.  The pattern of murders does not quite match the rhythms of Stuart’s home and work life, where post-shift he sluices his boots of blood by the back door before demanding sex.  Both we and she suspect, but neither of us rushes to judgement.

This is Bennett at his most chilling and doing his bit to demonstrate the banality of evil.

In every possible respect Marjory is not Celia, the blowsy antique dealer played to perfection by Kristin Scott Thomas whose monologue forms the evening’s companion piece.

Celia is a self-styled gate keeper of good taste, the opposite of which she contemptuously informs us is stripped pine. For her, the experts of such institutions as Christies are mere “barrow boys” and are no match to her discerning eye which evaluates every stick of furniture and artefact in a dying pensioner’s nearby home.   

Scott Thomas delivers a gorgeous, gently comic portrait of smug, self-satisfaction.  And when Celia’s own wisdom lets her badly down the actor deflates it with tragic restraint.

The pieces are better plotted and run deeper in their respective half hours or so than most full length dramas could ever hope to manage.  And it turns out also that Bennett’s ethnicity, background and shoe size turn are no barrier to writing two of the most beautifully observed plays you could ever hope to see.

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