Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: Phil Lowe
Since Alan Bennett’s original six-part televisual masterpiece of social observation, collectively known as Talking Heads, aired on the nation’s televisions in 1982, some of the groundbreaking monologues have been transferred to the stage by both amateur and professional companies. The choice is usually an evening of two monologues and invariably two of Bennett’s funniest – A Chip In The Sugar and A Lady of Letters. Quite often they are performed in an intimate studio or small stage environment as the confessional nature of the writing and performing suits such venues. Not this time, however.
This Theatre Royal Bath professional touring production boasts not two but three of Bennett’s works with a stellar cast of three well-known actors each taking up the challenge of performing a 40-minute monologue.
All three monologues are performed on a full stage and augmented by Frances O’Connor’s clever angular sets. Paul Pyant’s lighting adapts for each piece as well as suggesting glimpses of the outside world around the stories of all of the closeted characters. Original music by Simon Slater helps to create the changing moods within each of the monologues. Sarah Esdaile directs each piece with the accent towards uncluttered detail and delivery.
In the first monologue – A Lady of Letters – Bennett’s character – the acerbic Miss Irene Ruddock (Siobhan Redmond) dashes off hand-written letters right left and centre to numerous officials and government bodies, including the royal family. She does this in order to express her ill-informed opinions and complaints. Redmond plays her as the eager-eyed ultimate curtain twitcher, smugly realising her minor victories through the power of the pen.
While the audience laugh at Redmond’s hilarious avalanche of verbalised written accusations, delivered with aplomb, the true and shocking reality of her actions is driven home. This is another of Bennett’s obsessives whose practices lead to their downfall only, in Miss Ruddock’s case, it is not terminal. Interestingly, her journey leads her to a better and more socially useful life. In this monologue, Bennett returns again to his favourite writing topics of the 1980s – the youth of policemen on the beat, trendy vicars, society’s ignorance, and the obliquely racist opinions of his characters.
A Chip In The Sugar is one of only two Talking Heads monologues written for men by Alan Bennett. The other is Playing Sandwiches, which is about a man with paedophile tendencies. In A Chip In The Sugar Bennett’s own style of speaking and subtle northern wit is heard most clearly.
A Chip In The Sugar is almost a mini protest play from the viewpoint of a closeted individual called Graham Whittaker (Karl Theobald). Graham’s protests arise from his jealous perception of an unexpected new relationship between his elderly and forgetful mother and her new suitor – the seemingly dapper Mr Turnbull. The jealousy arises because Graham and his mother behave not so much like mother and son but like an old married couple very much set in their ways. Graham also protests against the nature of language and how it can obscure reality. There is a perfect example when Graham attends a meeting at Community Caring for the mentally ill. Pathetically railing against an accusation that he is being ‘defensive’ about sexual intercourse he erupts with his retort “I am not being ‘defensive’ about sexual intercourse! She is my mother!”
Theobald takes us on Graham’s emotional journey of a life tipped into confusion and chaos by the arrival and courtship of the bullying and opinionated ageing roué, Mr Turnbull. In a complex darkly comic monologue that brings in other characters, Theobald does well in entertaining the audience with his ever-twisting story while retaining Graham’s own fey character.
Stephanie Cole is the 75-year-old widow Doris in A Cream Cracker Under The Settee. Her frail old lady character has a fall from a height while attempting to dust the top of her wedding photograph on the wall. This tumble proves to be her downfall. Cole brings out all of Bennett’s bitterly accusing wit and Doris’s stubborn nature borne of a cleaning obsession and love-hate relationship with her home help, Zulema. Her main personal demon is the constant thought of being packed off to Stafford House – as she sees it – to die a lonely death with people who smell of pee. With beautifully written dramatic irony, this fear is actualised earlier than Doris anticipates except that her place of death is her living room not in the relative comfort of Stafford House. Cole has the audience close to tears in the final part of her affecting monologue as she says “Never mind. It’s done with now. Anyhow.”
Photo: Nobby Clark | Runs until 5 September 2015