Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lives of quiet desperation... existential angst in Yorkshire 1980s

 Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, first broadcast nearly 30 years ago, is the current production at Theatre Royal Bath.  Radio seems self-evidently the most appropriate medium for narrative monologue, so any such transfer is a challenge, especially as the writer himself observed "the more still and even static the speaker is, the better the monologue works". Visuals, in his view, beg the question 'who are you talking to?' as the intimacy in these confidences is different for public viewing than as private musings.
Siobhan Redmond (Miss Ruddock in Lady of Letters), Karl Theobald (Graham in A Chip in the Sugar) and Stephanie Cole (Doris in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee) are superb choices for these tales of loneliness and suppressed desperation. I can't imagine these characters better performed, though Siobhan Redmond is so charismatic she couldn't help making Miss Ruddock delightful despite being a vicious troll. (This is the most upbeat of the trio, ending with her happily incarcerated and learning to swear.)
Direction compromises Bennett's views on staging with quite a lot of business involving teacups & clothing accompanied by music and lighting changes. A surreal set (Francis O'Connor) evokes the lonely minds of these three characters all mulling over the big issues of existence through detailing painful trivia. At the end of each section the curtains close from top as well as sides, effectively shutting down our window on their lives.

This is a production that will undoubtedly be well received and the performances, especially of the first two, deserve admiration, but I have a problem with the lionising of Alan Bennett. It’s clearly an outrage of Lord Sewell-style proportions to question this writer's mastery, but I do. There can be quirky charm in his humour but, unlike Peter Kaye’s ‘overheard-up-north’ observational comedy, it often teeters gratingly into the patronising. There is pathos beyond the banal, true, but it takes a long time coming.  There's insight in his perception of relationships & religion as props, but his take on mothering borders on misogynistic. And there's something intrinsically uncomfortable about the way his Helen-Mirren-aged women have false teeth, partial dementia and snobbish obsessions. I believe Alan Bennett was a very kind man but last night it seemed he'd probably agree with Katy Hopkins there are just far too many old people around. 

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