Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Sarah Esdaile
Reviewer: David Jobson
Alan Bennett is well known for his monologues. Restricting movement prevents the audience’s distraction from the monologue’s message. Either that or he has a sadistic way of leaving his characters grounded to the floor.
First written as a TV series in 1988 and brought to the stage in 1992, Talking Heads featured a myriad of monologues spoken by the likes of Patricia Routledge and Thora Hird. Despite the cosy nature of the monologues they share the loneliness of the late middle aged in suburbia.
First up, Siobhan Redmond plays a social recluse Miss Ruddock in Lady of Letters. An impervious woman, she simpers with self-gratification and frowns at any fault in all areas of society. So much so that she writes endless letters of complaint, to recipients from the crematorium to the chemist.
Redmond would have to be my favourite. Her enunciated delivery and the smallest of facial expressions are brilliantly timed and leave the audience in stitches. Two-thirds of the way through, the monologue produces a bombshell, and her performance is riveting.
Next is Karl Theobald in the rôle that Alan Bennett himself played. In A Chip in the Sugar we observe Graham, who suffers from mental illness and lives with his elderly mother. When an old suitor of his mother’s, Frank Turner, enters the scene his whole life is turned upside down.
Karl’s delivery is fast paced in comparison to Redmond, with smatterings of Alan Bennett. He has an air of wistfulness with small moments of sardonic humour. It is his ability to rôle-play the various characters, taking on different expressive quirks, which is impressive.
Finally we have one of the original performers of the Talking Heads series, Stephanie Cole. Filling Thora Hird’s shoes, she plays Doris in A Cream Cracker under the Settee. An elderly woman on the cusp of being placed in a care home if she doesn’t meet the social worker’s dictats.
Alone, she discovers her legs are going numb, leaving her crawling around the floor. amid her dusty and untidy surroundings, this is a play about missed opportunities. She talks about her marriage, and the things she and her deceased husband could have had, including a child. The monologue follows the slow fragmentation of her life.
The three plays feel similar in tone. They are all comedies with a dark turn that comes either suddenly or gradually. It is Lady of Letters that takes this sudden approach, and it only makes the rest of the production pale in comparison. A disappointment after Talking Heads started on such a high note.
Still it is the performances that make this production. Against Francis O’Connor’s simple but surreal sets of suburban interiors painted with the sky, we see three people struggle to cope with their isolation.
Well worth a visit.
Runs until 12th September 2015