Last Updated on 25th June 2020
Paul T Davies reviews Monica Dolan in The Shrine, part of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series now playing on BBC iPlayer
Talking Heads: The Shrine.
Starring Monica Dolan
Streaming now on iPlayer.
If you’re watching the streaming in order or waiting to view it on BBC1, this is the twelfth play of twelve, so this review may contain spoilers. This the second of two new episodes written by Alan Bennett to replace the two original monologues that need to be performed by an actress over the age of seventy.
Lorna has been informed of her husband’s death. Clifford died in an accident whilst riding his motorbike, and very quickly Bennett tropes are established. Young policemen, the dismissal of the term “closure”, and what is Bennett’s obsession with vicars? Here it’s the Rev who revs! The police have already placed flowers at the accident spot, apparently as a warning to drivers that they need to take care. Originally dismissive, Lorna begins to attend the spot and creates a shrine to Clifford. Only someone else is also leaving flowers at the shrine, and eventually, she meets Betsy, a biker, and Lorna discovers that Clifford had a different persona among the biking community, and was known to them as Cliff. Here he swapped the avocado and cheese sandwiches Lorna made for him for bacon butties, and the policeman informs her that Clifford was climaxing at the time of the crash.
The piece, as all the monologues are, is beautifully performed. Monica Dolan captures perfectly Lorna’s grief and confusion, and that desire to hold onto the English stiff upper lip. Her face is aghast at the revelations about “Cliff”, the man she barely knew, a man different from her husband Clifford. It’s interesting, however, that Cliff, no matter how unfamiliar to her, remains a decent man. Whilst there are hints that Betsy admired him, that he may have had a pillion passenger, that there may be dodgy material on his computer that Lorna doesn’t want to find out about, Cliff also inspired younger bikers and was very much liked among the fraternity.
It can, perhaps, feel a little anti-climactic that there are no shocking revelations, but I think the play is a study in grief and coping. Lorna actually says, in the final scene, that if this were a film, it would end with Lorna running a transport café called Cliff’s Corner, serving bacon butties to lonely bikers who would flock to the café, built on the site of Clifford’s fatal accident, Lorna dressed up in his biking gear. I think it’s to the play’s credit that it focuses on the quiet, personal process of grieving, and this is captured perfectly in Dolan’s understated performance. Her closure is to turn Cliff’s two biker’s helmets into flower baskets, and that says just about all you need to know about Bennett’s world!
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