Writer: Alan Bennett
Directors: James Brining, Amy Leach, John R. Wilkinson
Designer: Laura Ann Price
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
As West Yorkshire Playhouse prepares to close for a major refurbishment Artistic Director James Brining has opted to end with an appropriate, rather than original, choice of play, saving the originality for a performance schedule that re-affirms the theatre’s commitment to the city. Over the last two weeks, four of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, which very much belong in Leeds, have been performed in non-theatrical settings in all of Leeds’ 29 post-codes, with one exception, LS2 which is where the Playhouse is.
Now, with two more plays added, Talking Heads has a short run as the final production in the Courtyard Theatre before temporary closure. The six plays are divided into two triple-bills, identified by the names of their protagonists. However, things are not quite that straightforward. Brining has chosen to stick to the first series from 1988, but to replace Her Big Chance about an aspiring film actress with A Woman of No Importance, never part of the series and dating from 1982. It fits the pattern well enough, in its structure and with its themes of self-delusion and petty snobbery, but seems to lack some of the play of irony that illuminates the series.
One problem for actors in Talking Heads is that many of the audience have vivid memories of the television programmes with some wonderfully distinctive actors: for the record, these three plays originally starred Bennett himself, Patricia Routledge and Stephanie Cole. Chris Chilton played Graham in A Chip in the Sugar under James Brining’s direction in 2014 and has also been involved in the local Leeds tour, and he has developed his own sad, funny and convincingly detailed characterization of the mother-fixated repressed homosexual. Graham lives with his mother, tends to her needs as her mind and memory are flagging, tries to educate her as a Guardian-reading lover of historical buildings should. The arrival of an old flame of his mother’s, a man in retail tailoring who (to Graham’s horror) wears yellow gloves, threatens to destroy Graham’s world. Finally, things get back to relatively normal, at the pain of much humiliation.
After the pitch-perfect A Chip in the Sugar, A Woman of No Importance doesn’t work quite so well. Even the set is less effective. A large block centre-stage is manoeuvred round to create an angled, rather claustrophobic room space for the first and third plays. A Woman of No Importance just takes place in front of the block, with chairs and bed brought on as needed.
The colour-blind casting of Flo Wilson helps to erase the image of Patricia Routledge and she conveys well the character’s innocent pride in being the linch-pin of the office and the centre of a jolly, socially enviable group – her much-repeated “We laughed!” strikes exactly the right note. However, seated in a plain row of chairs gossiping gently, she seems almost too nice and the story of her decline in health and importance becomes merely sad.
Muriel in Soldiering On has just lost her husband, a highly successful businessman and pillar of the community. The story of her descent from prosperous, self-confident widowhood to eking out an existence in a seaside holiday cottage is told with considerable leaps in time, Bennett’s allusive narrative most skilfully done. Tina Gray brings out the character’s mixture of shrewdness and blind folly very well, as she learns painful truths about both her children, but would benefit from a more sardonic edge.
Runs until 23 June 2018 | Image: Richard H. Smith