Bed Among The Lentils is one of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ monologues, and its power lies in Bennett’s ability to capture a series of voices within one speaker. For me, the most entertaining aspect of the play is Susan’s healthy disregard for her husband, Jeffrey, and his “fan club” - who pretend to be in love with God but are actually in love with him, their vicar.
Susan is hopeless at flower-arranging, and observes all the church idolatry with wry humour and frank detachment. She has no illusions about her husband even if she does downplay her own cooking skills. She has the artist’s ability to observe events from a distance, even her own interesting exploits in the vestry; always pragmatic, without great expectations for the future, Susan is the woman parked in a layby on the motorway wondering what has happened to her life.
Debbie Kelly acts as Susan with down-to-earth simplicity. Kelly is from the Leeds-based Library Theatre Touring Company, which aims to take theatre to communities. It’s her detachment that brings this tale to life: Susan is not and does not aspire to be superwoman. Within the parochial minutiae of parish life, human nature is wittily exposed. There are vicars on the make, a Bishop scouting for talent, parishioners jostling to arrange the best flowers and those who are keen to pay homage to the vicar at every opportunity.
Yet Jeffrey is not a superstar to Susan. She reflects: “God is just a job like any other,” and even doubts whether Jeffrey has faith. It becomes apparent later in the play why Jeffry has fallen off his pedestal, although we do wonder if he was ever elevated in the marriage at all. As for Susan, she is just tired of being on parade.
Enter Mr Ramesh, the young, enigmatic grocer who may know more about morality than Jeffrey. A chance encounter reinvigorates Susan. Mr Ramesh encourages her to seek help, although her husband steals all the credit and alludes to the mysterious workings of God with sanctimonious piety that we come to recognise by now.
Bed Among The Lentils is a play about ordinary life, and events that take us by surprise as we journey through it. Surprise, we could argue, keeps the spice in life while institutions such as the church threaten to stifle it. But don’t expect dogma or theology; instead we’re given an intimate insider’s view of a clergy marriage that reminds me of Jane Austen in its wit and acute observation.