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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Doris And Doreen
Thames Television 1978 and YouTube 2022

Our archaeological digs in the farthest corners of YouTube uncover this 1978 television play by Alan Bennett, starring Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge and featuring Pete Postlethwaite.

It is not really a success, but nothing written by Bennett can be without interest, and none of the three performers is capable of being anything but enjoyable to watch.

(Just because this may ring some distant memory bells for some I should note that a stage version, retitled Green Forms, was tried out in 2003 but never came to London.)

Scales and Routledge play workers in some obscure office of an unidentified large corporation. They receive papers, do something to them, and pass them on, and the two actors brilliantly convey a sense of dedicated irrelevance so that we guess that while the company might eventually grind to a halt without whatever it is that their characters do, the universe as a whole would hardly notice.

(Postlethwaite pops in briefly as a fellow employee who rambles on a bit about the virtues of unionising, which seems about as irrelevant as anything else.)

Eventually the women notice an odd series of requisition forms, all coming from the same source and all oddly specific to their own little office i.e., they too have a missing lampshade, broken window blind, etc. - and suddenly we are in the menacing world of early Harold Pinter.

(In that context Postlethwaite's rambling has the feel of some early Pinter sketches and plays in which he captured the empty but fascinating music of ordinary talk.)

And therein lies the play's inescapable limitation. On his own turf Alan Bennett is peerless, but whenever he stretches himself or tries to enter someone else's artistic territory he loses his own power and become a pale imitation of someone better at what he's attempting.

The Pinteresque menace doesn't really catch hold here, nor does another quality to the play. Without spoiling the plot twists, let's just say that the menace is real and the women's days in this paper-pushing office are numbered.

From the perspective of four decades later we can see that Alan Bennett is anticipating the cold-blooded bottom-line thinking of the decade about to begin. The menace in Doris And Doreen is not Pinter but Thatcher.

But that kind of social-political semi-allegory is much more David Hare's bailiwick Hare addressed the state of the nation's soul that same year in Plenty, and Thatcherism a decade later in The Secret Rapture and tepid imitation Hare is not what we come to Alan Bennett for.

The three actors are working so comfortably within their familiar ranges that there is little evidence of director Stephen Frears's contribution, and George Fenton's obtrusive music score all portentous and melodramatic chords even when nothing melodramatic is happening just gets silly after a while.

Fans of the actors will enjoy them doing what they can do with such ease, and Bennett completists will find the evidence of his limitations instructive. But there's not much more to attract the casual viewer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Doris And Doreen 2022