Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Ben Occhipinti
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Alan Bennett’s series Talking Heads showcased the art of the monologue on television to great acclaim; here, three of those mini-masterpieces make the leap from screen to stage in the Octagon’s quietly captivating production.
The television format has its benefits, camera close-ups provide a window into each characters world that the theatre by its nature lacks. On stage, one has to work harder to achieve the same level of intimacy, however, director Ben Occhipinti and three terrific performers make it appear effortless; succeeding in drawing each audience member in as if they are speaking only to you.
Liz Cooke’s expansive set features a seemingly ordinary house with bed, table and settee acting as the focal point for each character, but cracks in the carpet and floorboards suggest all is not as it seems under the surface. It is suitably reflective of Bennett’s style, who writes relatable dialogue peppered with intriguing hints towards what remains unspoken.
In ‘A Chip in the Sugar’, mild-mannered Graham finds his routine and mindset disrupted when his mother meets an old flame. Irene, ‘A Lady of Letters’, loves to take up a cause and pick up a pen until her letter-writing habit spirals out of control. Finally, in ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, Doris reflects on her life with her late husband while trying to cling fiercely to her diminishing independence.
David Birrell excels as Graham; vividly conjuring locations and re-enacting conversations with such skill that although his mother and her new suitor never appear, it feels like you know them as well as Graham himself. His expression and delivery wring every drop of humour out of Bennett’s wry wit and in his oft-repeated phrase – “I didn’t say anything” – Birrell’s touching performance communicates exactly what is left unsaid.
Cathy Tyson is spirited and funny as Irene Ruddock; capturing her obsessive personality but conveying her motivation to be included and be part of a community. She complains to the council about a broken step and takes great pride in the resultant ramp that is fitted, a small change but one she is responsible for. Irene ultimately goes too far but in Tyson’s hands is easily redeemed and is given a satisfyingly uplifting end.
Sue Wallace makes her Octagon Theatre debut and fully conveys the emotional complexities of Doris, from the laugh out loud one-liners criticising her lackadaisical home help to the moving remembrance of her lost child. The shifts from light to dark in ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’ embody the humour and heart in Bennett’s writing and it brings the production to a poignant close.
The three pieces work well together, with the central theme of loneliness and social isolation clear to see and tenderly explored. Continuing the Octagon’s commitment to new writing, three brand new monologues will be running alongside this production in the studio. Talking Heads brings Bennett’s tragi-comic tales to a new generation and presents a first class example of the genre.
Runs until 8 July 2017 | Image: Ian Tilton