Muriel – Karen O’Neill
Lesley – Jessica Webb
Doris – Anne Connell
Since the debut success of the first three Talking Heads monologues, presented in January 2011, the ‘In The Bar’ theatre has dropped a bombshell, shaking alive a weary space, and bounced into 2012! Less cryptically, it has thrived, providing a more intimate and informal theatrical experience, whilst also affording the audience an ideal and relaxed environment for storytelling and the perfect opportunity for an accompanying tipple. Therefore, it seemed an obvious idea to include Alan Bennett’s other touching observations in this year’s season, thus completing a modern classic.
The beauty of Bennett’s writing lies in the gradual revelation of his characters, seemingly pretentious from the outset, and leaving the audience reeling with the pain of each story at its climax. The main
character basis is built around self-deception and none so much so as Lesley, the aspiring actress in Her Big Chance, where Jessica Webb immediately engaged the audience to effortlessly present the
naivety of her character. As she smilingly attempts to delve deeply into the character analysis of Travis, she allows her ego to deceive both herself and, in turn, the audience, of the reality of her situation on a film set. When she is finally given ‘something I can relate to’, Lesley believes the subtle assurance that ‘she is showing contempt for his whole way of life’, however this is swiftly followed by the bathos to ‘elbow the bikini bottom!’ In Soldiering On, Karen O’Neill stoically presented the courageous and resilient tone of Bennett’s language to mask the true nature of her relationships with
her late husband and her son. Ever the optimist, her clichéd assertions that ‘we lived to fight another day’ and that she works hard ‘breasting the billows’ infer survival, yet hide her real grief in a tragic story of human nature. She is very much in fear of being abandoned by her son with the reluctant and endearing admission that ‘I suppose he has been a scamp’ concealing the fact that he is a selfish and greedy villain. It is a very moving portrayal of a woman whose deliberate self-deception of her
loneliness and mental illness is gradually revealed through the careful use of language, which surfaces an underlying sense of pathos. She refuses to indulge in self-pity and constantly speaks positively with many statements, such as ‘I feel sure there must be a community here if only I can put my finger on it’. However, this likeability and her powerful and besotted loyalty towards her son, only serve to heighten the contradiction of her final offering, that ‘I’m not a tragic woman. I’m not that type’.
However, where Bennett’s tone of language particularly came alive was in the final monologue. A Cream Cracker Under The Settee, where Anne Connell perfectly captured the rhythm of his writing to
communicate every single nuance and implicit meaning. Widowed and alone, Doris is sat up against the settee after a fall at home. Meticulous by nature, Doris bemoans the lack of attention to detail from her visiting carer, whose assistance doesn’t reach her own lofty standards. She wishes she could report Zulema for the errant cream cracker but ‘I’ve destroyed the evidence’. Now living in fear of a move to Stafford House, where she will be labelled an ‘antique’ and kept ‘under lock and key’, Bennett
criticises modern society with Doris, who doesn’t ‘know anybody round here now. Folks opposite, I don’t know them’. The satire concerns a perceived lack of communication in society where no-one knows their neighbours anymore and no-one comes to help. However, when the policeman finally
arrives, Doris shoos him away, leaving her to accept her fate by declaring, ‘you’ve done it now, Doris…I wish I was ready for bed’. This is where Anne excelled, not only identifying with the pride of her character, but her complete mastery of the text allowing her to share Doris’ pain in a believable way that we could relate to grandmothers within our own families. First-time director Adam Bambrough lent a nice touch to proceedings with an excellent choice of filmic musical interludes from the appropriate As Time Goes By through Moon River and Misty, allowing for the passing of time during the blackouts within each monologue. The costumes and set were simple and effective, with period furniture enabling a homely feel, whilst I particularly reminisced at Muriel’s Sony ‘Walkman’, which poignantly played Johann Strauss as she bravely, refused to admit defeat. Talking Heads presents a bleak and negative view of life, yet the stories appeal to us. The characters may not be instantly recognisable, yet through their openness and honesty, they offer verisimilitude to each moving situation, where our compassion attracts us to their circumstances and the humour pervades. Bennett’s monologues are challenging for any actor, even more so when the TV adaptations are so well-loved and identified with the likes of Julie Walters, Stephanie Cole and Thora Hird. However, Bambrough can be proud that his cast and team were up to the challenge and, as his programme
notes suggest, they grasped the key elements that an understanding of Bennett demands.
– Andrew Newbon
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