This is a review of episodes 1 – 4
Alan Bennett’s first series of six Talking Heads aired in 1988 and was considered daring television at the time. A single performer filmed with long slow takes telling a story about an incident from their daily lives which actually revealed a much bigger narrative than at first appeared was not necessarily going to lure in the casual observer. But so powerful were the individual performances and the overall strength of the writing that they soon went down in TV history, found their way onto the A level Literature syllabus and regularly popped up on stages all over the globe (hence my excuse in including them in a theatre review blog). Bennett wrote a second tranche of six in 1998 and now his regular directorial collaborator Nick Hytner has spearheaded a project to recreate ten of the original pieces plus two new ones written more recently. The “missing” pair, which both originally featured Thora Hird, could not be done because it was considered too risky to use an actress over 70 in the current climate. Instead Bennett and Hytner have added two new pieces to the series to bring it back to full strength.
The opening monologue features Imelda Staunton as Irene Ruddock in A Lady Of Letters and what an opening this turns out to be. Staunton is simply magnificent as the lone soul who writes letters to anyone and everyone in her desperation to connect and make her mark. Many of these letters take the form of complaints or an attempt to, as she sees it, right wrongs. It is not long before she has the new neighbours in her sights, but she has tragically misread the situation and finds herself in trouble with the law. Staunton burns with a suppressed fury; even though I knew what was coming in the climactic moment it still somehow took me by surprise. The inner shell shock which Staunton then registers as she gazes deep into the camera seemed to stretch time – really powerful stuff. Staunton gives the piece far greater intensity than her predecessor Patricia Routledge managed; that is not to say that one outclassed the other, but it did make me think more carefully about why Irene finds herself in her situation. Small wonder that in the latter stages she has found a sense of peace and contentment – even happiness.
No such resolution awaits Gwen the subject of An Ordinary Woman. This is one of the two new pieces and is, once again, performed brilliantly by Sarah Lancashire as she confesses the horrid secret which lies deep in her soul. The narrative is quite a taboo buster even in 2020 and I wonder whether it would or could have been shown in 1988/98. Bennett is often accused of whimsy but there’s no such feeling with this piece – he takes us to a very dark place indeed. The writing has lost a little of its edge and the play would probably have benefitted from losing a few minutes. And there is rather an over reliance on the monologue’s title to drive home the point that Bennett is making about the situation in which Gwen finds herself, i.e. it could happen to anybody. But I defy anyone not to be shocked and moved by the last line in its ability to defy convention. The play really needs a national treasure like Lancashire to pull it off and she does not disappoint – her face may not crumble but her soul does… and we crumble with her. However, we will eventually be able to escape our lockdown, she is stuck with hers.
Muriel in Soldiering On also finds herself at an impasse. Her husband has recently died and she has a liquidity problem; at least that’s what her son Giles tells her. Blinded by her devotion to him she signs her life away and finds herself in reduced circumstances from which she will find it difficult to escape. Meanwhile her daughter Margaret has special needs and also has to be moved from her expensive care home inducing some pangs of guilt in her mother. Whatever she really feels about her offspring, Muriel never lets on. Rather she fills her life with activity – or at least she does until her support system evaporates. Harriet Walter makes it a triple whammy of performances and gives a consummate interpretation, delivering a character long on optimism but short on realism when it comes to her own family. Muriel’s talk is peppered with jolly hockey sticks clichés and Walter invests these with just the right level of emphasis to delineate the social set from which the character hails. The clothes, the hairdo, the body language are all pitch perfect. Marianne Elliott’s measured direction captures a real sense of stillness but underlying heartache as Muriel cheerfully endures her ongoing predicament.
Jodie Comer as Lesley in Her Big Chance has two very tough acts to follow. Firstly, the trio of actors who precede her in this series and give superlative performances and secondly Julie Walters who played the part originally – need I say more? Some of Comer’s phrasing seems to be a direct steal from Walter’s interpretation or is that coincidence and it’s just the way that the cadences in Bennett’s writing fall? Either way the end result is just too similar to the original version and the younger Comer cannot quite convey the desperation which oozed from the older Walters. Keeping it stuck in a time warp may also not have helped with its references to Crossroads and West Germany and with Comer sporting the stonewashed jeans so fashionable at the time. While resolutely of its own time the play is actually very timely for today as the #MeToo movement has revealed the sort of behaviour which Bennett has detailed in his script. It is perhaps strange (or as Lesley would put it “interesting”) therefore, that the direction and performance in this piece is not just a bit more knowing. I didn’t dislike it but it’s the first one of the series that I can say I wasn’t positively struck by.
Photographs by Zac Nicholson
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