Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Josie Rourke
We meet Lesley – young, softly glamorous – framed by an open window. She immediately impresses us. We assume we are about to be introduced to a great star, or at the very least, a star on the rise.
In Her Big Chance, Alan Bennett takes us into the world of film and television. Lesley (played by Jodie Comer) is an actress but in walk-on, mostly non-speaking roles. She forms part of the background; visual filler. But Lesley is a woman with a keen sense of her own worth: she takes every role, no matter how small, very seriously. She give us a rundown of her CV; the greatest hits, of course. Lesley wishes to give us the impression that her big break is only a phone call away. Comer, leaning into the fragility of the character, exposes how she is clinging to (perceived) former glories. Lesley starts to talk about her latest job. She plays Travis, the girlfriend of one of the leading men. It is a small part in a very low-budget film.
Comer smartly references the 1988 version of this Talking Heads episode, which featured Julie Walters as Lesley. By layering some of Walters’ intonations with her own, Comer develops the role of Lesley further. The film requires her to shoot a man in the back – a first for Lesley. Remarking that she is not “someone who takes violence in their stride”, we smile at the thought of Comer’s own big chance – the assassin Villanelle – ever making such a claim. If Travis baulks at having to shoot a man with a harpoon gun, it would be all in a day’s work for Villanelle.
In remaking such a time specific piece – a walk-on part in Crossroads is Lesley’s calling card – there is always the danger of it not ageing well. But this story operates in the ever-changing world of showbiz. Not only do shows and actors fall in and out of favour (Lesley would not even qualify as a Z-list celebrity), her last big role – a background character in the Roman Polanski film, Tess – would now be problematic to say the least. Director Josie Rourke, by keeping the Polanski reference, makes us consider our own cancellation culture. Girls like Lesley, then as now, would be vulnerable to the promise of a more substantial role.
Bennett underscores the need for Lesley to stay afloat in an industry where she could not be of less consequence. Her desperate attempt to impress is not egotistic, like many of the Talking Heads, but a means of survival. She chatters to fill the air, to stave off a possible rejection. If they haven’t said no, you’re still in the room.
Comer’s ability to dial into the darker side of narrative works beautifully here: the off-the-cuff remarks, the asides, help us to piece together what is really going on. While feigning a level of experience and sophistication she doesn’t have, Lesley’s sharp observations on class, and the minutiae that make up those distinctions – the bread and butter of any Bennett heroine – begin to slip away. For the first time in her life, Lesley is working off-script, and there is nothing left to hold on to.
Available here until June 2021