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Peccadilloes and Pain: Talking Heads

26 March 2017

Talking Heads

by Alan Bennett

Second Talking Heads programme

OHADS at The Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre

22nd to 25th March

Review by Thomas Forsythe

 

Travelling on a bus is seldom a quiet business.  Indeed, often its passengers can be informative, entertaining or downright salacious.  Time was when you needed two talkative passengers to overhear the sort of conversations that are, well … er, impossible to ignore. Nowadays, thanks to the ubiquitous mobile phone, you only need one.  Why do people talk at a level that almost makes the phone redundant?  And why do they feel it confers an anonymity under which the most intimate details of the speaker’s life are revealed to all and sundry?

For the audience, it is this feeling of trying not to be eavesdropping that sets the mood of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, except the ambience is more cosy than the top of a bus.  Certainly, the Coward Studio at Hampton Hill Theatre has a degree of intimacy, such that OHADS performance of these delicious monologues made one feel more like a sympathetic listener than a nosy eavesdropper.

Susan does not feel fulfilled as a rural vicar’s wife in a Yorkshire village: gradually she finds increasing solace in the sherry bottle, and gravitates increasingly frequently to more dynamic surrounds of Leeds and the exciting arms of Ramesh, an Indian proprietor of a 7-to-11 grocers’ shop, to find passion among the pulses, or as the tile of the first monologue puts it, the Bed among the Lentils.   Susan remembers one of her husband’s sermons, when the homily turned to the God-given role of sex in marriage: “Sex is an important gift, but not the be-all and end-all”.  “You can say that again!” Susan declares, whilst her mind drifts towards Ramesh, “26 years old, with wonderful legs”.

In tackling such sensitive subject matter, Bennett is very much skating on thin ice, with the risk of offending at least three groups of people, Anglicans, Hindus and Flower Arrangers!  But he manages (just) to pirouette along the looming cracks, without falling into icy waters.

“If you think squash is competitive, try flower arranging!” says Susan when confronted with “The Fan Club”, the ladies from the flower rota who are always keen to please the vicar.  For Susan, her attempt at church flowers ends in a case of mild concussion.  My audience companion is a professional flower arranger (who also works for the C of E), so she was able to assure me that here were many home truths!

The truth, however, never gets out about Ramesh, and he eventually returns to India and his arranged child bride.  Nevertheless, the truth does seep from the sherry bottle, via Alcoholics Anonymous and back to the vicarage.   But not to condemnation: no, her reluctant testimony now fuels many of her husband’s most compassionate sermons.

Helen Geldert’s performance as Susan, with Helen Smith’s direction, absorbed the complexities of the character.  It was incisive, precise and deliciously irreverent.   All good (but not so clean) fun!

If the first of our “talking heads” was in a social standing that conventionally should have been buttoned-up, we moved on to one which required more than a modicum of unbuttoning.

We see Lesley cosied up in her pyjamas with a mug of hot something, a “Groovy Chick” mug, no less.  But Lesley knows how to step from one character to another, for she is a film extr- … whoops a “supporting artiste”, who by her own CV is “vivacious and professional”.   We don’t just listen to her story; she draws us in, for she “collects people”.  She is bubbly and extrovert, but rather an innocent abroad and oh so slightly gullible.  You see, she has been cast in a film, which in the words of the title could be Her Big Chance.  It is in the not-so-exotic location of Lee on Solent, but filmed on a (borrowed?) yacht.  But what she doesn’t see (or does she?) that it is a soft porn movie.  (Soft porn is the type with a storyline.)

Lesley gets on well with the techies, with the First AD Nigel, and even with the director Gunter, who is big in Northern European films.  She is keen to please and of course she is “very professional”, so she not only goes along with their suggestions, but makes “improvements” of her own.  After all, she wants to be better than Travis, the actress whom she is standing in for.  Topless?  Yes, here’s a way we can do it a little better, for she is “professional”.  Knickers off?  Why not, she is “vivacious”.  What about the last scene on the yacht, with the gangster with the gun?  Any ideas?  Yes, “sexual intercourse”.  As she says, “Acting is all about giving”.

Lithe and gamine, Tracy Frankson played Lesley’s eager effervescence with gusto.  We saw a very likeable character, whom somehow we wanted to protect.  Under the direction of Ken Mason, Tracy Frankson pushed it almost but not quite to the edge of overacting.  It was a joy to watch.  All good (and definitely not clean) fun!

The third monologue, had a quite different mood and introduced a character very different from the other two.   She is Peggy, the eponymous Woman of No Importance.  Bennett borrowed the tile unashamedly for Wilde and there are some parallels, in particular the idea of one’s perceived importance in society.   (This monologue actually predates Talking Heads and comes from the Objects of Affection anthology which was its precursor.)

Peggy is a methodical, meticulous and middle aged.  As a spinster, her life revolves around her work, which is on the administrative side in a factory.  She believes that the factory in turn revolves around the bureaucratic centre of Mr Skidmore, her boss, and that she is the indispensable linchpin that the office in its turn revolves around.  She is always neat and trim and “puts on a lick of paint” to make herself “respectable”.

The highlight of Peggy’s day is lunch in the work’s canteen, where she can “meet the girls”.  One gets the impression that they may not be quite as keen to meet her.  Peggy’s benevolence probably becomes a bit overbearing after a while.

Bennett draws the character of Peggy very finely, with great humanity and humour as she describes the minutiae of her everyday life, peppering each description with sharp non-sequiturs, the source of much of the humour in Peggy’s heart-to-hearts.

However, tragedy lurks as illness gradually creeps into the routine order of her life.

These are the days when doctors were demi-gods, the patient did not inquire about symptoms and diagnoses were not divulged.  So Peggy blissfully believes that her ailment is not life-threatening, but is interesting to the medical profession because its rarity renders it baffling to clinical students.

Hospitalisation necessitates a recreation of her indispensability in the office into the new environment of the ward.  She becomes sister’s aide-de-camp and the newspaper distributor, by intercepting them from the trolley to give a personal service to her new bunch of “the girls”.  Similarly, her veneration of Mr Skidmore becomes transferred to her consultant Mr Penry-Jones.

However, with excruciating inevitability we witness Peggy’s decline as becomes weaker and confined to her hospital bed, her body enfeebled while her mind still scintillates, wrapped in her dressing gown in her favourite “careless pink”, Daily Mail unread.

Lottie Walker excelled in the role of Peggy, with spot-on characterisation.  With her director, Sally Halsey, she has clearly made a detailed study of each nuance.  The part requires accurate comic timing, and Lottie Walker delivered these straight to the target, especially those little throw-away remarks, the non-sequiturs:  “… his acne’s heaps better” or “… she’s black, but I take people as they come”.  The portrayal of Peggy’s decline was so measured that her transformation occurred almost imperceptibly, until finally the pathos was pushed to its painful poignant edge.  All good (and very clean) fun, fading, dissolving into ironic tragedy … but only for us, now very sympathetic listeners, whilst Peggy is blissfully trustful of the infallibility of the sainted Penry-Jones.

OHADS’ three actresses’ and three directors’ incisive observations of the ordinary, with all their peccadilloes and pain, enabled us to eavesdrop shamelessly on those informative, entertaining or downright salacious fleeting remarks.   What was the motto of The News of the World?  “All human life is there”.

Thomas Forsythe

March 2017

Photography by Bernard Wigginton

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From → Drama, Reviews

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