At first glance, Irene is a responsible and contributing member of society. She has a few complaints about things, but who doesn’t? As she tells her story it becomes more clear that writing endless letters of complaint is practically her only social interaction. As Irene tells her story with the unmitigated belief that she is right, the audience begins to see her concern for the behavior of others is evolving quickly into something less benign. Alan Bennett has described his characters as “artless narrators” who, like Irene, are blinded by their own perspective, and unable to see their story veering off course.
Graham Whittaker, whom Alan Bennett himself portrayed in the BBC TV original production in 1987, takes serious offense at A Chip in the Sugar, a literal metaphor for an unwanted intruder in his life. Life has been just fine for Graham and his mother, who he lives with, cares for and relies on. His world is shaken by the sudden appearance of Frank Turnbull, an old flame of Graham’s mother. Mr. Turnbull’s influence is keenly felt by Graham, and as he loses his grip on his mother, Vera, he fights to maintain the status quo. Although he doesn’t see it, his struggle to “get back to normal” may destroy his mother’s chance at happiness. In many ways, by letting his characters tell their own stories, Alan Bennett gives us a window into why they are the way that they are. Many of his characters have made choices to let the world pass them by, or as one reviewer described Graham as “being smothered by his comfort blanket.”
Alan Bennett has been hailed by critics as a “chronicler of English ordinariness’ and for his uncommon ability to pierce through the mundane scenarios, or seemingly acceptable behaviors, of his characters and reveal both the tragedy and humor which lies beneath. For Susan, the tediousness of life as a vicar’s wife has settled heavily on her shoulders in Bed Among the Lentils. She doesn’t feel cut out, or even equipped, for the responsibilities of her ecclesial life and has serious doubts about God anyways. Her humor and doubt often find themselves combined in her sarcasm, but also betray an unshakable sadness and loneliness - “so long as you run a tight jumble sale you can believe what you like.” Mr. Bennett is not one to offer a Hollywood happy ending, there is no fairy godmother for Susan, instead he offers a realistic portrayal of of life and the possibility of redemption for which we are all looking.