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Cream Cracker Under the settee, Bed Among the Lentils and Chip In the Sugar

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I thoroughly enjoyed the production and preferred the interpretation of the plays in comparison to the televised version. I found the televised version lacked emotional depth and resonance, whereas the theatre production successfully conveyed emotion whilst remaining static. The theatre production also introduced props which were convincingly used by the actors to make the performance more real and ring true. And as the characters spoke directly to the audience it made the entire experience all the more personal; it was as though the character was confiding in the audience.

The dramatic Monologues from ‘Talking Heads’ were initially written as a television series and shown in 1988 by the BBC; they included the renowned actress Maggie Smith, Thora Hird and Julie Walters. ‘Talking Heads’ broke new dramatic ground as previous monologues tended to be musical and it has become a modern classic. Such was the success and popularity, the plays moved on to the BBC radio, international theatre and even appear on A-level syllabus. In the Introduction of ‘Talking Heads’ Alan Bennett describes the difference between a monologue and play.

He says; “A play allows you to see things from the perspective of several featured characters. In a monologue you are reliant upon the view points of a single character; you must read between the lines to draw your own conclusions” This is so true. At the beginning of Alan Bennett’s dramatic monologues you are reliant upon what you are being told by just the one character, but as the play moves on, the character recalls and re-tells other situations, you begin to draw your own conclusions about what is going on underneath.

I found this particularly in ‘Chip in the Sugar’, where the character talks about his concern for his mother and her new boyfriend because of her age and vulnerability out of concern. However, his extreme over protection, jealousy, and over controlling role over his mother lead to doubts in the audience’s mind about their mother son relationship and whether it’s more than that or if the two of them are just extremely dependant on each other for support, whereas in normal circumstances the children leave home.

Owing to the characters openness we are able to delve into the inner most thoughts of the individuals- who typically of Alan Bennett are sad, pathetic and timeless characters who deal with difficult and dark situations apparent in our society today. Unbeknown to them, however, they tend to reveal perhaps much more about themselves than they intend. This not only adds to the humour of the plays but gives us great insight into their lives. However, the story we hear is always one sided but never the less we are compelled to feel empathy for the characters.

The monologue ‘Cream Cracker Under the Settee’ focuses on the life of an elderly widow named Doris. Her husband passed away, and her physical condition, not allowing her to look after her self properly, she grudgingly puts up with a cleaner from Welfare- Zulema. Doris suffers the torments and threats from Zulema about being taken away to Stafford House, if she keeps trying to clean up her self- is this genuine concern about Doris’ condition or a blatant misuse of power by Zulema? “What you don’t understand Doris, is that I’m the only person that stands between you and Stafford house”

Doris refuses to go to Stafford house, but still insists on secretly cleaning as she complains Zulema’s cleaning is not at all up to scratch. Whilst she tries to dust the picture frame of her dead husband, she slips. Unable to get up or move much she gets thinking about her present and past life in this complete short play. Ironically, Doris finds a cream cracker under the settee whilst she’s on the floor which she wants to send to Welfare so Zulema is sacked, but, she can’t move and is forced to eat it for tea- and this is where the play gets its name.

This monologue puts sharply into relief the neglect and suffering, which, as they are over looked older people are forced to put up with. Zulemas abuse of power over Doris, her patronising tone and lack of respect for Doris’ age and experience, increases the audience’s sympathy for Doris. Doris not only is still suffering the loss of her husband in later life, is also physically handicapped due to her age. This is a reality which every one of us dreads to face as it is the signs of age, and everyone grows old one day.

I think it’s harder for younger people to sympathise with Doris’ situation as she has the life experience of age we lack, but it still had a lot of effect and I’m now personally more conscious of the value of older people. The monologue ‘Bed Among the Lentils’ focuses on the life of a Vicar’s wife. At first she seems very stereotypical of a vicar’s wife but as the play moves on her dissatisfaction with her life becomes apparent. So much so that she drinks her problems away and is a secret alcoholic.

Her husband is at the very centre of her dissatisfaction, she feels pressured by the constraints and expectations of her role as vicar’s wife, and her marriage is not all she wants it to be along with her sex life. This results in her finding comfort in Ramesh Ramesh a shop owner, with whom she has a passionate affair in the back room of his restaurant among the sacks of lentils- which is were the plays name comes originates. Ramish Ramish makes her feel alive, like a woman again.

Back at the parish her husband the vicar, reveals he knows about her alcohol addiction, well him along with everyone else in the parish and uses it as leverage in his career. He makes her out to be a charity case of sorts. The flaunting of her alcohol addiction by her husband helps in the justification of the affair in the character’s mind as well as the audiences and gains her sympathy. The affair helps her to retain her sanity. Despite being a vicar’s wife she does not act like one at all.

She breaks free from her role in society and is happier for it. As the audience I felt sorry for her dissatisfaction and unhappiness with her life and thought the affair was a wonderful thing that happened to her. As there is solely one character in a monologue, it is important for the author and director to use different dramatic techniques to grasp the audience’s attention. In ‘Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, there are occasional pauses which Alan Bennett uses in order to give the audience time to reflect on the character’s situation.

For instance, there is a brief moment of tension when the leaflet comes through the door which Doris is sleeping against; … ‘Love God and close all gates’. (Doris closes her eyes. We hear some swift steps up the path and the letter-box opens as a leaflet comes through, Swift steps away again as she opens her eyes) ‘Hello, hello’ I think Alan Bennett places a pause here to allow the audience to think about Doris’ sheer misfortune/ bad luck at being a sleep when some one comes up to the house, and also to think about her helplessness because she is old, and lives alone.

It also gives the audience a chance to relax as Bennett deals with pretty dark truths in his play. I think in some ways he’s trying to make us feel guilty about Doris’ accident, because it does happen to old people who live alone and it shouldn’t. It’s very emotionally provocative. These pauses in the script are also ideal for a theatre production. They allow for the occasional changes of scene / position throughout the play and give the actor’s time to rest as they talk for the rest of the time. Bennett also uses pauses in ‘Bed among the Lentils’ for these same reasons.

Different voices are introduced as we meet various characters, which are brought to life through Doris, who adds humour and life into the play through them. She tries to change her tone of voice to add variation, for instance the character ‘Zulema’. Doris’ great dislike of this character is distinctly present in the play- this is often shown through her sarcastic humour. “Which would be all right provided she did dust. But Zulema doesn’t dust. She half dusts” Bennett’s use of simple yet comic language heightens Doris humour, yet it’s to the point and deeply profound.

We can see past Doris’ humour and tell that she carries deep spite for this character. The problem with other characters being brought to life through Doris is that all the audience knows about the character is Doris’ version of them – which is more than likely to be biased, meaning that the audience is reliant upon Doris to successfully draw a conclusion on these characters- with Zulema the picture Doris paints of her is uncaring, but Zulema was right Doris should be in Stafford house- so whether or not Zulema really is as dreadful as Doris makes out is left entirely to the audience to decide.

This is very difficult. We can, however, successfully pick up Doris’ feelings about the characters. Apart from Zulema the other character Doris talks about a lot is her husband Wilfred. Unlike Doris, Wilfred’s character has an easy going nature “Don’t worry mother; I’ve got it on my list” “the garden is my department” Wilfred’s easy going nature is something which I think irritated Doris; however, she still misses him and talks about him with love and compassion. In ‘Bed Among the Lentils’, it is also very easy to pick up Susan’s feelings about other characters, especially her husband.

Despite the fact we can not draw a successfully unbiased conclusion about the Vicar, it’s obvious that he neglects Susan and that his job is infact his first love. When Susan talks about him she does it sarcastically. This helps her to convey the disappointment she feels in her marriage. In comparison when she talks about Ramesh, Ramesh she does it as though she’s been naughty and lustily so it’s obvious that she’s enjoyed the affair and the attention she gets from Ramesh. The two different timescales used- from which other characters are introduced adds interest for the audience.

All of Doris good memories seem to come from the past, “You could walk down the street and folks smiled… I’d leave the door on the latch and go on to the end for some toffee and when I came back Dad was home and the cloth was on and the plates out and we’d have our tea” This is a time before Wilfred died and she faced the threats and torments of Zulema about Stafford House. It also signifies a change in society, and it’s rapidly changed around as Doris has grown older and more vulnerable.

This new society is less accommodating for Doris and older people and I wonder whether if she’d been an old lady in the time when she was younger, she’d be better looked after- especially when you consider the situation she’s currently in. The one regret I think Doris has in her life is not having a child. I think she was very upset and disappointed about her still birth but it’s not really voiced in the play, just sort of quickly brushed over, so it probably still hurt her to think about it.

And when Doris talks about the child and Wilfred, Wilfred’s feelings about the child aren’t apparent, he’s not a particularly open character despite his easy going nature. And perhaps Doris would also be better looked after if she had had a child who could look after her in her old age. Alan Bennett cleverly draws all these elements out when he writes and makes you think about them. Similarly there is also this dual time scale in ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ and ‘Bed among the lentils’- In which Susan had always dreamt of her secure and well ordered and respected 50+ years.

However, these 50+ years have been unhappy ones and the cause of disappointment. The present and future affair with Ramish, Ramesh is where she finally finds some happiness and it’s not at all where she expected it. With Doris, Bennett has cleverly created a well developed, complex, interesting and hilarious character. Her sarcastic sense of humour ‘Cracked the photo. Were cracked Wilfred’ gives the monologue a lease of life and entertains the audience. “Your better off doing it yourself” her fixation on cleaness and dedication to the war on dirt makes her quirky and unforgettable.

The way in which the actress’ from the televised version-Thora Hird and theatre acted Doris’ part were strikingly similar. They both altered their voices for the different characters, although the theatre Doris did not continue it through the entire play but just the first part of it. But they both were able to make the audience feel empathy for their characters and I found both performances very convincing. The performance that I enjoyed the most however, was in the theatre. This is not because she was a better actress, but the overall experience of a live performance was much more enjoyable.

Similarly with ‘Bed among the lentils the experience of watching it in the theatre was far better than on tape, however I also thought the performance by the actress on the televised version was very dull and monotonous. She didn’t show any feeling about finally breaking free of her stereotypical life and having the affair when she acted and I preferred the performance by the theatre actress, who gave her character life through her facial expressions and made the play comical which is something the televised version failed to do.

The humour in the play ‘Bed among the lentils’ doesn’t come from Susan’s own sense of humour, but infact mainly from the way Bennett has written the play. The humour comes through the hilarity of the situations she finds her self in- fighting with the members of parish whilst flower arranging at the altar of the church under the heavy influence of alcohol and then collapsing. The sincerity in the way she talks and the realisation of what she’s been missing after her blinkered life make the play extremely comical.

Her rash affair with Ramish, ramish and her secret alcoholic life show she is a needy character and she’s crying out for attention, but this is what makes me like her character so much- all her faults. There were a few brief moments of Tension in ‘Cream cracker under the settee’ that kept the audience interested for example when the leaflet is delivered, the boy having a pee and when the policeman asks if she’s ok. These moments of tension created the feelings of anxiety for the audience and where cleverly acted give the illusion that Doris might infact take help, but at the last minute her stubbornness shines through.

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