Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Graham speaks in a Yorkshire accent, softly as if concerned that his “Mam” could hear through the thin walls of the house that he shares with her. She is a widowed 72-year-old, and he, we assume, is in his late 40s, but the arrival of a cuckoo in the nest (or a chip in the sugar) threatens to disrupt their cosy mutual dependency.
Playwright Alan Bennett played Graham himself in the original 1988 version of this monologue and the distinctive style of the writing makes it difficult not to hear him speaking the lines. However, Martin Freeman cleverly avoids an outright impersonation with a subdued, undemonstrative performance. The accent is unavoidable, because locations are specific, but Bennett’s familiar characteristics are absent and Freeman tackles Graham with subtlety. We know that he is being treated for mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, and we know that he is probably a closeted homosexual, but both details are underplayed in this revival, perhaps allowing them to make a stronger impact on the drama.
Director Jeremy Herrin confines Graham mostly to his small, drab bedroom. A single bed is in the corner, a table lamp shines by its side and, when Graham gets to his feet, he goes no further than to a comfortable armchair or his wardrobe. He is in effect the willing prisoner of an overbearing mother, and he is left floundering when she rekindles a friendship with Mr Turnbull, a man whom she had met in Filey in 1934. The interloper challenges the progressive ideas of Guardian reader Graham and persuades Mam that “the blacks” can be blamed for all woes.
Bennett presents casual racism and archaic views on social issues as norms of middle class life in the 1980s. We ask if these attitudes still persist beneath the surface. That thought is shocking enough, but, otherwise, the story is without the deeply disturbing twists that mark some other episodes in the Talking Heads series. Still, it remains perceptive and quietly touching.
Available here until June 2021