Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nadia Fall
Alongside the original Talking Heads from the 1980s, Alan Bennett also wrote additional stories first performed in the late 1990s, which have been included in the current London Theatre Company series for the BBC produced by Nicholas Hytner and Kevin Loader. Dramatically, The Outside Dog may not spring any surprises in its examination of the effects of sensationalism in a small community, but it has all the expected Bennett touches.
Living with slaughter-man husband Stuart and annoying dog Tina, Marjory obsessively cleans their home while fielding complaints from the neighbours about the dog’s continual barking and unwelcome visits from Stuart’s mother. With a killer on the loose, Marjory refuses to acknowledge the growing evidence and as the net tightens the community fights back.
Performed by Rochenda Sandall, this is one of the few Talking Heads that seem to be specifically written for a younger actor, focusing less on the loneliness and rituals of middle age and more on the fallout from a series of gruesome murders as well as the day-to-day routine of a difficult marriage. Initially, there is a note of D.H. Lawrence in the mix as Bennett introduces a mother-son relationship that makes Marjory feel inadequate as a wife, while the male environs of the slaughterhouse equate to Lawrence’s colliery notions of masculinity.
But that ember soon dies and the focus shifts instead to the mounting evidence on the suspected killer and the ensuing consequences for Marjory and the home she never seems to leave. Perhaps we have seen too many serial killer dramas now, but you watch this expecting a twist that never really comes, the facts laid out a little shamelessly early on and never challenged. Some of the earlier monologues had a gift for not being what they first seemed or at least leading their character almost beyond redemption, which The Outside Dog doesn’t quite achieve.
Bennett’s attention is instead focused on charting the peculiarities of behaviour, his interest here is in local reactions, creating a credible sense of a street of nosey neighbours all spying on one another through their net curtains – something we also see Marjory do – a place where suspicion and accusation trumps community spirit. Even Marjory’s obsessive cleanliness and tea ritual using a proper pot as several of the other protagonists do seems more pointed than the net tightening around the killer.
Sandall is excellent though, and as with the other stories has to adjust her performance to suit the time lapses between the segments of her monologue. A seemingly ordinary housewife at the start, she sets the rules, a fearless not quite prim but house-proud woman. Sandall transforms as The Outside Dog plays out, turning her initial calm into contempt for the other residents and anger against the police, before a genuine fear envelops as the power shifts in her final sequence.
Bennett never wastes a word, launching each subsection of the monologue without preamble and here, directed by Nadia Fall, a growing tension builds across the 30-minute story that never flags. Regular viewers of EastEnders may find the recognisable set a distraction but Sandall’s performance certainly holds its own among the classic Talking Heads it accompanies.
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