With the rebooted series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads set to hit our TV screens in a few days’ time, I thought it would be a good moment to revisit the dramatic monologue as a genre. With social distancing and everything else in place at the moment it is likely to be one of the few theatrical forms that can be achieved with less difficulty and there are any number of solo performers “out there” with varied content and styles to share with us. Here’s just two of them which both concentrate on storytelling and are pieces performed by the person who wrote them
Declan* is written and performed by Alistair Hall, and is making its debut online to raise funds for London’s The Actors Centre, during its period of closure.
Jimbo is 12 and on the cusp of young adulthood. Both his body and his mind are confused about its identity and the world around him is not much help. His mother is absent, his father unresponsive and his best friend, Declan, has disappeared. Not that the audience learn this in any straightforward linear fashion. Rather, Jimbo’s immature mind leaps around from subject to subject and we leap with him, piecing together bits of the puzzle among which are dispersed various grisly recountings of factual (possibly) and fictional (possibly) occurrences to do with vampirism, confused sexual identity, suicide and an obsession with Edward II. The line between reality and imagination starts off blurred and never becomes any clearer.
While this may all echo the disordered mind of an almost adolescent, the chaotic structuring of the play does not make it easy to follow and, being a monologue, absolute concentration is required. What emerges is a disquieting tale of loneliness, abandonment and tragic consequences which, although the piece is not without humour, has stark resonances for the times in which we are living. If, indeed, that is what we are seeing. It could equally be the case that we are watching someone with psychiatric issues trying to come to terms with a disordered life; the parallels with Renfield, the asylum patient in Dracula spring to mind.
Alistair Hall’s delivery is cleverly done and as writer/performer he creates an unreliable narrator character whose tales are hard to believe as he mixes fantasy with fact. Dressed in pyjamas (which works equally well for the young boy or the institutionalised patient), hyperactive one moment, still and impassive the next our sympathies are evoked for this lonely person. In one telling passage we learn that Jimbo’s reflection has detached itself and is acting independently of its host – a striking metaphor for the position he is in and which also pays homage to the Gothic horror tradition.
The set is a bare black box littered with rubbish – bin bags, a pair of trainers (the missing Declan’s?), an abandoned microwave, etc. at which the static camera is pointed (as an aside the video and sound quality is pleasingly high). The whole is lit by institution-like strip lighting which gives a cold stark feel to the piece. Alexis Gregory’s direction starts off by carefully sectioning out the various aspects of the plotline but as matters move to a head the various elements begin to flow into one another; in the best traditions of the ghost story there is a chilling conclusion.
As the publicity makes clear this a modern ghost story but I felt it needed greater clarity. I confess to watching the piece twice and it is really only on a second watch that the pieces fell into place. Fortunately, with this streamed version which only lasts for 25 minutes, this was possible. But if, as is mooted an actual run of the play is going to take place later this year then I think there is some work to be done to ensure that audience members do not leave scratching their collective heads.
Heads Up is written and performed by Kieran Hurley. 25% of ticket sales go to Kids of Colour
Kieran Hurley is a young playwright of note (his online oriented play Bubble has proved a bit of an internet sensation) and this piece is no exception. Heads Up is a chilling tale of the end of the world as we know it written and performed with passion and conviction and, for such a generally static piece, a great sense of theatre.
There are four protagonists in the storyline and Hurley switches between them to paint a bleak picture of tragedy and disillusion. Mercy is a high-powered futures trader though, clearly, she has no future of her own; she becomes a prophetess condemned to wander the land with nobody listening to her dire predictions. Ash is a disaffected computer game playing teenager beset by self-image issues, especially since her ex-boyfriend has circulated a compromising picture of her; she takes refuge in a toilet cubicle. Leon is a slightly paranoid self-obsessed pop singer, addled by coke, concerned that his career is on the slide and embracing and dropping causes as the fashion dictates; his dash across London to help save the bees nearly ends in disaster. Minimum wage slave Abdullah struggles to keep his job in a coffee chain obsessed with customer satisfaction and resorts to numbing his senses with drugs; he watches TV and the news fills him with dread. The audience becomes each character in turn as Hurley uses second person narration to draw us in and implicate us in the quartet’s lives.
From these disparate stories, Hurley weaves a fascinating and poetic tapestry full of detail and told with wit and mordant humour. Symbolic resonances cut across the various strands such as images of bees which have diminished in alarming numbers in recent years. It all makes for a highly literary even poetic take and what the end of the world actually is remains deliberately unspecified. That said I did think the concept ran out of steam (narrative wise, certainly not performance wise) in the last ten minutes but by then I was well and truly sold on the concept. As well as narrating/acting Hurley operates his own sound board using the electronic and often dissonant score of Michael John McCarthy to highlight, punctuate and commentate upon the unfolding narrative. His own performance is mesmerising and reminded me of a beat poet’s performance in intensity and conviction. I wondered whether being barefoot was some kind of homage to their spirit.
Both these monologues push the envelope as to what can be done with this form. One concentrates on a single central character and the other on a whole society but what links the two are their condemnation of modern life and the ways we have to find to deal with it. I found myself remembering a verse from the song Time on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of the Moon
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
*The review for Declan first appeared on the LTR website
Production photos by Jamie Luke & Niall Walker
Declan is available on the Actors’ Centre website until June 28th. Click here
Heads Up is available on Show And Tell. Click here
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