review of talking heads

by Arthur Rochester

When November’s planned production of Hedda Gabler had to be replaced, Pauline Armour’s choice of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads could be described as inspired. Originally written for nineteen-eighties television, these monologues are ideally suited to live performance in a small auditorium and, on the evening I attended, received one of the most enthusiastic responses I can recall at BLT for some time. Straight from directing what she described as ‘a cast of thousands’ in Great Britain, Pauline, sharing the task with Dan Armour, produced an evening of highly entertaining and affecting theatre. An outsize portrait of the playwright looked benevolently down on a simple, adaptable setting, with well-directed lighting and subtly appropriate music providing an effective framework for all three of the performances.

The challenge confronting the cast was an exceptional one, not least of memorisation, and it is perhaps worth recording (although BLT audiences are accustomed to nothing less) that there was never any detectable hesitation in the confident and assured delivery. The pacing throughout allowed the audience fully to appreciate the superb observational nuances of Bennett’s writing,  exemplifying the maxim that good theatre should be a shared experience between cast and audience. Each of the three ‘conversations’ with the audience revealed, layer by layer, fragmented and disintegrating lives, with much wry humour and, essentially, with great poignancy.

In Bed Among the Lentils, Maxine Edwards captured the frustrations of Susan, a vicar’s wife stifled by the routine of a small Yorkshire parish and the ‘fan club’ of parishioners surrounding her vainly insensitive husband, with humour and versatility. As she revealed her descent from communion wine tippling into alcoholism and the solace she found in the arms of Mr Ramesh, her local corner-shop proprietor, she created a convincing portrait of what may unexpectedly lie beneath many a veneer of respectability.

In A Chip in the Sugar, Drew McGurren, making an impressive BLT debut, sensitively depicted the mental health issues exhibited by Graham, a middle-aged bachelor living comfortably with his seventy-year-old mother, Vera. This cosy existence is threatened by an encounter with an ‘old flame’, Frank (in a cafe where Graham’s fastidiousness is outraged by the discovery of ‘a chip in the sugar’). A subsequent marriage proposal threatens Graham’s exclusion from his childhood home, until he discovers that Frank is already married and has proposed to several other women. Vera’s hopes of happiness are thus destroyed, but the stultifying ‘normality’ of Graham’s life is restored. In a finely-crafted characterisation, Drew McGurren delicately portrayed Graham’s deep dependence on his mother and the intensity of feelings behind the banality of the dialogue.

Lastly, in HerBig Chance, Megan McGery created Lesley, an aspiring young actress whose career thus far had been limited to bit parts and ‘walk-ons’ in TV soap operas and the like. Undeterred by this relative lack of success, she remains confident and committed to her craft and demonstrates a wide range of theatrical jargon and pseudo artistic-speak. She is now on the threshold of ‘her big chance’, a part in a film being made “for the German and maybe the Turkish markets”. As she enlarges on the nature of the film, the audience take little time to conclude what Lesley, either through naivety or self-delusion, does not: that it is in fact soft pornography.

Alan Bennett’s writing is perhaps at its most poignant as Lesley searches for the ‘motivation’ to perform naked before the cameras. Megan McGery was superb, especially when Leslie mimicked the film’s director and other crew members, and captivated the audience’s attention throughout. Each of these monologues struck a delicate balance between humour and tragedy, a demanding challenge which was brilliantly accomplished by three talented actors, skillfully directed, resulting in a thoroughly rewarding evening of theatre.

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