DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Talking Heads: Susan, Doris & Irene – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer – Alan Bennett

Directors: James Brining, Amy Leach & John R Wilkinson

Reviewer: Jay Nuttall

It has been thirty years since the BBC commissioned a series of single voice plays from Leeds playwright Alan Bennett for BBC 2. These televisual treats became iconic, won BAFTAs, spawned a second volume of monologues and have been performed in theatres ever since. On the eve of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s temporary closure for refurbishment, six actors tackle six extraordinary pieces that have become the benchmark of character-driven monologues.

It isn’t very often in the theatre that writer, actor and audience are allowed to indulge in character. All too often, plot and story drive the narrative and character tries to keep up – not so in Bennett’s writing. That is not to say that his monologues do not have drive or plot; nor is it to say that each 35-40 minute pieces are solely character studies. Bennett is possibly the finest dramatist of female characters of a certain age. His close relationship and many visits to Betty’s tea rooms in Harrogate with his mother over the years led him to form exquisite observations and relay authentic turns of phrase from the middle-aged to elderly women he writes: eavesdropping as he refers to it in the programme notes. However, it is not all ‘jam and Jerusalem’ as many perceive Bennett’s work to be. Behind doilies and dusting, there is always something much darker and dingier lurking. Talking Heads are the characters’ confessions and we are their complicit confidante. 

In Bed Among the Lentils Susan (Cate Hamer) is the frustrated wife of the vicar, Jeffrey. Simply known as Mrs. Vicar to most she comments that she has never even been asked whether she believes in God, such is the assumption of the role of a clergy’s spouse. Bennett’s writing never really feels like monologue as we are introduced to so many incidental characters. Of course, it is the skill of the performers and direction to bring this world to life, but we all have individual visions of what characters like Mrs Belcher and Mrs Shrubsole look like. Susan’s world may be flower arranging and jumble sales but, of course, a more sinister side begins to emerge as she may be having more than a nip of sherry (especially when the communion wine mysteriously goes missing) and her visits to the Asian shop to buy more drink lead to an affair with shopkeeper Mr Ramesh who “has lovely teeth”. Cate Hamer’s portrayal of frustration has some genuinely funny moments but it is the image she conjures in the storeroom of the shop waiting for Mr Ramesh (hence the title of the piece) that really stands out – an exotic other she thought she would never have.

Irene (Vanessa Rosenthall) is A Lady of Letters. Your typical judgemental, curtain-twitching busybody she is on her final warning from the police regarding writing letters to all and sundry, often accusatory. “It’s been a real friend” she laments to her pen and there is a wonderful story regaling the time her and Westminster Council wrote back to each other thanking them for their previous correspondence. The running theme through all of Bennetts writing in these three monologues is the women’s’ ‘social armoury’ and his exposition of the smallest chink. Irene, for all her communication with a pen, is desperate for any social and human communication. Her loneliness is all-encompassing and she begins to win us over and tricks us into thinking the ‘kiddy’ over the road may be being mistreated by his parents only to be so cruelly wrong. There is happiness and hope though for Irene as, ironically from her prison cell, she has, at last, found the companionship and social interaction she has craved through her years of letters.

But for all of Bennett’s wit and humour, it is A Cream Cracker Under the Settee that serves as a sucker punch. Elderly and frail Doris (Marlene Sidaway) is very close being rehoused in Stafford House – a home for the elderly. We spend thirty-five minutes in her company on the floor of her home, fallen and injured after dusting a picture of her late husband. “We’re cracked, Wilfred” she confides, clutching the broken frame. Unable to get up salvation nearly arrives several times with the sound of the garden gate: hope that is always slightly out of reach. Learning a little about her life it is clear that she has got to the point in her life where she needs help, yet fiercely does not want to give up the life and independence she has always had. So when help and salvation finally come knocking on the door there is an excruciating dilemma to be made. Marlene Sidaway, shuffling around, on the floor beautifully delivers Bennett’s words of this intensely sad story that hits the audience with huge emotional power.

Laura Ann Price’s picture frame style set is sparse and pared down – a perfect complement to the writing that isn’t. The living rooms with Alice in Wonderland style dimensions our whole focus is on the character and their words. And Bennett bombards us with detail. But it is the scratch on the surface that uncovers so much more beneath. The running themes that connect the three pieces are isolation, loneliness and regret. “It’ll be better second time around. But this is it. This is my go!” exclaims Irene in A Lady of Letters. As bleak as the subject matter may be, it is the wit, humour, pathos and tragedy that Bennett masterfully crafts, alongside genuinely exquisite performances from all three actresses that make this production genuinely superb.

Reviewed on 14 June 2018 | Image: Richard H. Smith 

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