John Cocking in the play Talking Heads

Talking Heads

Play by Alan Bennett /
21 & 22 June 2019 /
Keirunga Theatre, Havelock North /
Review by Anna Soutar

Four monologues by the author of The Lady in the Van and The Uncommon Reader, presented as a curtain raiser by the newly restored Little Theatre in the Keirunga Gardens campaign, Please Be Seated, to raise funds for the seating in the theatre.

A great way to break the ice for this venue, a sort of bottle-over-the-bow effort to see if all its parts fit, work the make-do seats, manage what seems like a crowd,  parking for all  and with a proven piece which in England has given the stage to people like Patricia Routlege, Thora Hird and Julie Walters not to mention Mr Bennett himself. These are stiff models for the four local actors tonight.

Director Sharyn Hildreth has a tricky job here, with a pocket handkerchief stage, already uneasy as a performance floor, simple but adequate furniture, and a task for the actors to unravel, seemingly nonchalantly, the deepest inner secrets of their lives.

She manages it, but not completely. The first up was Eleanore McLean with a compulsion many in the Havelock North audience must sympathise with, to write to whoever is in charge and complain about something (in Keirunga Gardens, thanks to the oak dilemma, this is a current feature of life, one supposes).  The trouble was that much of the monologue was addressed to the floor.  Her best bits were when she is finally locked up for being a public nuisance, and trumpeting her catch cry “He wants reporting!” she continues her letter writing mischief among her fellow criminals.

Jane Sutherland plays a real sad sack. The wife of a dreary and up-standing vicar, she takes – too much – to the vestry wine and then to the wine sold by a back street purveyor and then to the purveyor himself. The next step in her unravelling is to AA and the confession that she is an alcoholic. A thread of commonality is emerging, that of human fabric coming undone, usually through one’s own actions. I become so sorry for this vicar’s wife. She rants up and down the stage like a caged animal, which is rather inadequate as a statement, as the stage area is so small that normal pacing is done in three strides up and three back, keeping a wary eye open for the edge. (Perhaps a more successful mobile stage would be a better purchase before the retractable seating. I know I was quite comfortable on the seat I was given).

Then there is the busty porn actress. Andy Brigden positively oozes pulchritude from her minimalist skirt to her smudged eyes. She is a bit hard to understand (she plays it in heavy Geordie accent) but her determination to be taken seriously – she is a serious actor and taking her clothes off for the director is the act of a true thespian professional – is poignant. Shudder. In an era which contains #MeToo it’s wonderful this woman can get the seductive words out of her mouth. Thanks to that thick speech pattern perhaps not too many actually got the steamy bits!

The one man in the brace of story tellers is certainly brave, to be bringing to the stage the monologue performed originally by Alan Bennett himself.  John Cocking plays the piece as an inadequate man who lives with his mother in a miserable life of safe but unimaginative routines, shared experiences and a thoroughly melancholy undercurrent. Cocking uses his hands as his expressive vehicle, sometimes clutching them together, at others wafting them limply in the air, then covering his face in bony bars, his life a cage of sadness.

These people are not imagined, one has the feeling that Alan Bennett knew each personally and merely wrote down what he saw and heard. In its turn, this company has recognised that here in the Antipodes, we know people like them, and that each deserves a moment on stage. The group has made a wonderfully funny start for this new theatre-for-hire and I for one cannot wait for the next occasion.

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