TV Review: An Ordinary Woman, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – BBC and iPlayer

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

 Writer: Alan Bennett

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Scratching the surface of respectable middle class suburban British life, Alan Bennett again unearths dark and disturbing secrets. Produced by Nicholas Hytner’s London Theatre Company and shot under lockdown conditions, An Ordinary Woman is one of only two brand new monologues being screened alongside ten remakes of Bennett’s classics from 1988 and 1998.

When we first meet Gwen (Sarah Lancashire), she is wearing a pale blue cardie, while finishing the family’s washing and baking a lemon meringue pie for tea. She could be in any kitchen, anywhere up and down the land. Bennett’s eye and ear for the language and customs of everyday life have lost none of their sharpness and Lancashire’s extraordinary gift for being “ordinary” is a perfect match, bringing the character to life from the opening seconds, right through to the heartbreaking conclusion. This is a tough watch, but one that is richly rewarding.

The storyline draws from the Greek myth of Phaedra, a woman who falls in love with her stepson, except that here, 15-year-old Michael is Gwen’s son by birth. She lives in a modern world of female vicars and closed-down libraries, described humorously by Bennett, and she faces up to what she knows to be unchallengeable taboos with utter horror.  “I could never tell him (Michael), but I have to tell somebody” explains the anguished Gwen and she tells us.

Under Hytner’s direction, the 35-minute drama is played out in short scenes at a measured pace. Lancashire is fearless, her agonised expressions, seen in close-ups, adding depth and meaning to Bennett’s words. For Gwen, the gap between duty and desire can never be bridged, but we are not tempted to despise her; instead we share in her torment.

Available here until June 2021

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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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One Comment

  1. When is this supposed to be set? Certain references indicate the present day, so why is the girl’s name Maureen? As a gay man, Bennett transposes anarchic male sexuality onto a mother. It is quite believable that the boy fantasises about his mother (see Nancy Friday’s research), but vice versa to the point of ruffling her clothing? No I don’t buy it. And she ends up in hospital on pills like previous subjects. Bennett needs to rely less on shock tactics, but his fans will bumble on saying how marvellous regardless.

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