This is a review of episodes 9 – 12
Was it worth remaking Talking Heads when the original versions still exist to be shown? A little over a week ago I watched a version of Hamlet from the RSC and yet it would never usually enter anyone’s head to question why a play that has been produced so many times requires yet another reinterpretation. It is recognised as a classic and one of the points about classics is that they can (indeed should) be subject to rigorous examination by each succeeding generation. Bennett’s monologues are generally recognised as classics of their type and so are definitely ripe for a remake. The new versions have certainly been as successful as the originals and the subject matter, the introspective tone and the current requirements of social distancing make them the perfect choice for the here and now. So well done Nick Hytner for coming up with the idea and providing those of us starved of our theatre fix with something to get our teeth into. In fact, when this ghastly mess we’re in is over, could you organise it to recreate the missing pair? I’d humbly suggest Judi Dench for A Cream Cracker Under The Settee and Patricia Routledge for Waiting For The Telegram; the latter would be a great way of bringing the project back to its roots.
After watching Nights In the Gardens Of Spain I was given to wonder whether Alan Bennett had help with the concept from film director David Lynch; like the film director’s work, the piece focuses on the sordid underbelly of middle-class suburbia. Rosemary is a quiet unassuming woman married to Henry for years with no children and few friends to speak of. The couple’s dream (though in actuality it’s more likely to be just Henry’s) is to retire to Marbella. Before that can happen, Rosemary finds herself sucked into a local tale of murder, a court case and some surprising revelations about her neighbours’ sexual proclivities. As with some other of the monologues, it is the apparent ordinariness of the protagonist which makes the events and emotions which are revealed so disturbing. Following Penelope Wilton in the role of Rosemary is Tamsin Grieg who proves to be yet another inspired choice. In this role she exudes a sense of calm even when she is describing the grisly discovery which drives the narrative. I particularly like her repressed giggle suggesting that there is more going on under the surface than meets the eye. At the end of the play she enigmatically smiles and the audience is left to decide for itself whether Rosemary has put two and two together.
Smiles are also Celia’s trademark in The Hand Of God, although these appear in varying degrees from the condescendingly superior to the broken when she realises she has let a fortune slip through her fingers. The character is a small town antiques dealer with a sense of superiority – largely unwarranted. She is neither a great businesswoman or a good neighbour though she likes to think of herself as the latter when she pops round to see an elderly bedridden acquaintance while all the time eyeing up the house contents with a view to turning a profit. She is dismissive of her customers (at least behind their backs) and refuses to demean herself by selling bric a brac/country preserves to the tourist crowd. Kristen Scott Thomas captures Celia perfectly in a series of short scenes which sees her take the character from supercilious to regretful. A lovely and telling touch towards the end has her nervously stretching her cuffs as she confesses her lack of acumen but steadfastly assures us that it doesn’t matter – it clearly does. Many of Bennett’s characters do bad things and make the wrong decision but as these are usually as a result of external pressures, we still feel sympathy. However, Celia is truly dislikeable and we inwardly cheer as she gets her comeuppance.
Miss Fozzard is also a bit of a snob and as her invalided brother Bernard points out somewhat naive about certain aspects of the modern world and the way others behave. She seems to have led a sheltered life, works in a department store and has little excitement to look forward to and raise her up from the mundanity of life’s trivia. Her one big treat is visiting her chiropodist but when he retires, she finds his replacement turning her little world upside down. In Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet (nice title) the main character is played by Maxine Peake who makes an excellent job of the comedic aspects of the monologue in phraseology that could only have come from Bennett’s pen. However, I couldn’t help feeling that the character should have seemed older than portrayed here – more along the lines of the original played by Patricia Routledge. Peake did avoid being a carbon copy of Routledge but, in so doing, seemed to slide into the sort of character voice often used by Julie Walters, particularly in the first half. That aside it was yet another good entry into this clever series.
The final instalment, and one of the two new pieces, is The Shrine featuring Monica Dolan. She plays Lorna recently widowed after her husband Clifford has been killed in a motorcycle accident. She begins to visit the place where he died and soon converts it into the shrine of the title, going there more and more regularly. Some mysterious flowers left one day raise questions and Lorna gradually discovers he was leading a double life as Cliff; she finds that he was not the man she thought she knew. Monica Dolan is perfect as Lorna and brings her considerable skills to fashioning a recognisable character in just twenty-five minutes. She achieves the perfect blend of heartbroken sadness, melancholy and confusion as new revelations are made and if the last moments of this piece don’t make you choke up, I’d be surprised. It’s all a bleak far cry from the neatly packaged fakery of the Hollywood ending so openly decried by Bennett. The Talking Heads cycle ends as it began with an impeccable visual metaphor for these current times; a lone and lonely woman sitting at a table trying to reconcile what life has thrown at her. Perfect!
Photographs by Zac Nicholson
Talking Heads 1 – 4 reviewed here
Talking Heads 5 – 8 reviewed here
Talking Heads can be found on BBC iPlayer. Click here
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