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TV Review: Soldiering On, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – BBC and iPlayer

Reviewer: Miriam Sallon

Director: Marianne Elliott

Having first aired in 1988, this reviewer wasn’t even a thought on her parents’ mind, as they say, when Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads first made a splash. So you’ll have to forgive the utterly fresh eyes and lack of comparisons, “Well it’s not like they did it last time” and such.

As with the first two episodes, Soldiering On is at once about a kind of person, and a very particular portrait of one woman. On this occasion, though, we don’t have the shocking intake of breath when we discover she is in fact not at all who we thought she was.

Instead we see the slow collapse of a woman who is determinedly cheery, and by the end desperately so. Muriel’s husband and love of her life Ralph has just passed away, and Muriel is left with a mentally ill daughter to take care of and a lot of paperwork from her son Giles who assures her she has been left a very rich woman with just a little “liquidity problem”.

This problem proves rather more hostile as Muriel is forced to move out of the family home and into a smaller property, and then to sell that too and move into an off-season holiday rental which her son finds too depressing to visit.

And she isn’t only robbed of her monetary possessions, but also of the memories of her dear late Ralph who, it transpires, wasn’t quite the man she believed him to be.

Through it all though, Muriel is the picture of stiff-upper-lip England, “I wouldn’t want you to think this was a tragic story. I’m not a tragic woman”, she unconvincingly reassures us.

Harriet Walters’ performance is understatedly beautiful. She retains a small smirk throughout, reminding us that she is in on the joke. But though this is a sturdy armour against the snow-balling misery of her new life, Walter does well to ill-conceal a truly broken woman.

There is a little less bite to Soldiering On than there was in A Lady Of Letters and An Ordinary Woman. Nonetheless, the weight of heartbreak and loss, seen most clearly when Muriel is insistent that she is fine, is crushing. The monologue being the sponsored cultural entertainment of Covid 19, this is an absolute masterclass in the form. Lucky for us there are nine more episodes to see us through the last dregs of lockdown and if the first three are anything to go by they’re sure to be perfectly enthralling.

Available here until June 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Perfectly, painfully enthralling

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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