Theatre Review: Talking Heads at the Theatre Royal Bath
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads made an indelible mark as a series of BBC TV monologues in the 1980s. Now Theatre Royal Bath, with many a successful Bennett production already under its belt, has revived three of the most highly acclaimed episodes for the second slot of its 2015 Summer Season.
Set somewhere in Yorkshire in the 1980s, these monologues unfold like a succession of short stories; glimpses of the humour and piquancy at the heart of everyday lives, as each character gradually unravels before us. In Lady of Letters, Siobhan Redmond opens as the acerbic Miss Ruddock, a busybody adept at dashing off a letter of complaint about any aspect of society – and there are many – that she finds fault with. Redmond takes time to fully settle into the role; at first she seems too young and hurried in her delivery but, as Miss Ruddock’s misplaced meddling in the well-being of her neighbours’ child turns toxic, she ends with a greater conviction of her character’s hidden depths.
In A Cream Cracker under the Settee, Stephanie Cole (who appeared in the original TV series as Muriel in Soldiering On) now takes on the part immortalised by Thora Hird of Doris, the hygiene-obsessed widow who comes a cropper when attempting to dust the places her home-help has neglected. Cole’s performance is solid, conveying all the fears of a nursing home and loss of independence. Yet it doesn’t quite reach the heights expected from the final monologue; not helped, perhaps, by the interruptions to its pacing by a series of closed-curtain scene changes which leave the audience unsure as to whether the piece has ended.
The performance of the evening must go to Karl Theobald as Graham, originally played by Bennett himself, in the second monologue A Chip in the Sugar. A middle-aged man with a history of mental illness, Graham finds life with his elderly mother is thrown out of equilibrium by the arrival on the scene of her unexpected suitor. Theobald effortlessly inhabits the quaintly exasperated resignation of his character, drawing the audience into a world of comically precise routines, where standards are maintained by a cloth on the table and the care of his elderly mother provides the certain world view Graham craves.
A series of everyday scenarios ends in perfectly-timed one liners; when a well-meaning vicar tells Graham’s mother he’s married to God, she retorts: “Where does that leave you with the housework?” Through Theobald’s assured delivery, from the homeliness of cafes and supermarket shopping, “natty” yellow-gloved gent’s outfitter Frank Turnbull vividly emerges as a bullying existential threat, edging Graham ever closer to the well of loneliness that lurks nearby.
Despite small, hard-earned triumphs the common themes of separation, of unfulfilled individuals set on scraping by rather than celebrating, run through all three monologues. They are supported by Francis O’Connor’s intriguing set of disorientating angles which cleverly adapts for each piece; walls reflecting the sky and clouds of an outside world spied upon with suspicion, with only the most utilitarian of furniture staving off the void.
Rather than taking it in new directions, Sarah Esdaile’s direction encapsulates Bennett’s original vision, emphasising its closely-observed humour and pathos. Letter-writing may be a lost art and today Miss Ruddock would perhaps be firing off a series of pithy emails or reviled as a Twitter troll, but the universality of the hollow at the centre of these ordinary suburban lives remains.