Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads

7-9 November / 
A season of four monologues directed by Sharyn Hildreth / 
Tabard Theatre / 
by Robyn Hewetson

Talking Heads is a series of dramatic monologues written for BBC television by British playwright Alan Bennett. They were first broadcast in 1988, and have since been broadcast on BBC Radio and included on the A-level and GCSE English Literature syllabus.

Gillian Davies plays Doris in “A Cream Cracker under the Settee”.

Doris, aged seventy-five, is a tidy woman — and when she suffers a fall after trying to clear up after her considerably less thorough home help, Zulema, it becomes apparent that her constant nagging may have been responsible for her husband’s early death. Alone and injured, she wonders whether the only place left for her in society is a care home which she distrusts. Resisting this with all her being, she decides she’d rather die on her own in considerable pain than live in a care home ‘smelling of pee’.

Gillian Davies – who has gifted so much of her life to Theatre in our region – appears in this monologue so finely embodying Doris it brought tears to my eyes and while they were still falling I laughed out loud. Gillian makes us so poignantly aware of the plight of this elderly woman – house proud and hard working – who is now alone in a neighbourhood where she knows no-one and where no neighbour cares for her or looks in.  Her fury at the poor housekeeping of her “care-giver” and her loathing of the advice she is given raises our sympathy completely.  The absolute peak of Gillian’s outstanding performance is when she finds a piece of cream cracker under the settee while she is on the floor and unable to get up.  She wraps it in her handkerchief to put in her pocket as proof of her Zulema’ poor standard of cleaning, but eventually resorts to eating it as she has no way of getting even a cup of tea for herself.

This piece was strong and commented loudly to me on our own state of affairs where so many of our elderly are lonely and too many people are too busy to look in on these neighbours.  I was filled with admiration for Gillian’s masterful take on Doris, who she portrayed as an 85-year-old, and I believed every moment of her gutsy performance.

Eleanore McLean plays Irene in “A Lady of Letters”.

Irene Ruddock is not afraid to speak, or rather write, her mind: she writes letters – to her MP, the police, the chemist – everyone she can, to remedy the social ills she sees around her. After one too many accusations of misconduct from Irene’s pen, she is sent to prison where, for the first time in her life, she feels free and happy.

Eleanore is absolutely captivating in this annoying woman’s character.  She sparkles, engages with the audience, uses her tiny piece of stage as if she were in a grand theatre.  She makes us wince and laugh and be glad she does not live near us.  The turn of events when Irene ends up in prison for her constant interference in people’s lives, her letter writing moving from “good citizen-like concern” into venom shocks us.  Eleanore’s performance, her accent, her fully lived into character takes us in and surprises.  How amazed I was to see her show how this woman actually thrives in prison, now engaged in creative activities, able to visit her neighbours, eat together and have a life actively shared with others.  It made us all think.  Eleanore is a truly fine actor.

John Cocking plays Graham Whittaker in “A Chip in the Sugar”.

Mild, middle-aged Graham Whittaker (who we learn is a repressed homosexual with a history of mild mental health problems) finds life becoming complicated as his mother, with whom he still lives, reunites with an old flame.

What a joy it is to see our “Bertie” play in this complex and slowly revealing piece about a man who “lives with his mother and cares for her”.  At first John shows us Graham in a way that fills us with sympathy and impresses with his humorous and caring approach to his mother. As the piece progresses and his mother finds love John shows us the more complex nature of Graham and his role with, and dependency on, his mother.  His performance filled me with empathy.  He showed nuance in his comprehension of Graham and we got to know both his mother and her new “love” through him.  This was a masterful performance by John and showed new depths in his acting skills.

Deborah Burnside plays Lesley in “Her Big Chance”.

Lesley is an aspiring actress, who finds what she believes to be her big break as the adventurous Travis in a new film for the West German market. It is not clear to what extent Lesley understands that she is appearing in a soft pornographic film.

Deborah also nailed this character.  This was, like the other monologues, a piece that slowly revealed the complexity of the character.  Lesley, is trying so hard to be a real actress in a movie, but she is shallow, foolishly innocent, and – for me – annoying.  I liked this piece less because of the stupidity of the woman – but could not help admiring how well Deborah showed her.  It felt long and tiring, but this was well written to really dig into this woman’s nature.

Then, quite suddenly, the show was over.  Deborah took her bow and then people began to get up and leave.  I was sitting there thinking, “Wait a minute – I want to see all the performers back on the stage to take a bow!”

I thought this was the one mistake of the whole evening.  I was filled with so much admiration for these performers, I longed to cheer and clap and look again at all four of them.  Please, Sharyn, for the final performance, let them take a group bow.  They deserve it. 

This was the sort of performance that made me ache to speak with the actors and give them my personal deeply felt thanks for such fine character sharing.

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