Deep In Talk
Initially, I did wonder why The Stage Club was staging Talking Heads. The original TV version, which featured the cream of British acting talent (Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Thora Hird etc.), is already hailed as the definitive version and it didn't seem from the advertising that The Stage Club was going to radically play around with the text or introduce new elements into the staging either.
On the other hand, the script is just so good and such an actor's showcase that, when you think about it, you can understand why any actor worth his salt would want to give it a go.
And I'm happy to say that all three actors here were definitely up to the challenge.
Ah, but what a script! Playwright Alan Bennett has such a way with words that the characters come alive even though all you have for each of the six monologues is just one person sitting in a chair talking for twenty to thirty minutes. The stories are also immensely funny and heartbreakingly sad, and a lot of the power of the production comes from the tightrope of that duality along which Bennett so skillfully manoeuvres. It is difficult not to be moved by the devastating loneliness of these characters' lives which drives them into a denial so deep that it borders on the absurd. It is especially heartbreaking when you consider that even when one lives in total denial, there are inevitably moments when one has to admit the truth to oneself and then quietly make the decision whether or not to carry on with the illusion. What incredible sadness there must be, then, to drive these characters to keep the curtains drawn at all costs even when, with a momentary gust of wind, a ray of self-knowledge peeks through the gap between the curtains. These characters are pathetic except in the judgmental sense of the word.
Of the six monologues, Her Big Chance stands out because it is texturally quite different. For one thing, it is about a younger character (Leslie) and for another, it is much funnier in a broad, almost cartoonish way whereas the other monologues about older characters are generally quieter and more sombre in tone. Also, crucially, Leslie alone out of all the Talking Heads characters possibly has no such moments of clarity when she sees the reality of her life even momentarily. She is essentially an ego-driven two-bit actress who is all T&A and who thinks she is a much bigger star than she really is and her characterization has little shading beyond that. I was therefore surprised that The Stage Club plumped for Her Big Chance when making their selection in this staging of three of the monologues. There is enough humour even in the quiet pieces that Her Big Chance is not needed to add colour to the other more sombre pieces and, set against only two other pieces, its differences are accentuated and this destabilises the production to some extent.
Any road up, Blair Earl was a delight and played the deluded Leslie with all the energy, charisma and great comic timing that the part required - although she did fumble some of her lines the night I saw her. Steve Armstrong, playing Graham, a man who builds his entire life around his mother in A Chip In The Sugar, also had the strong stage presence and deft timing needed to carry his monologue but he spoke a little too quickly in places and squandered the chance to milk a few of his wittier lines to greater effect. Admittedly, in other places this worked very well to reinforce the impression that Graham didn't realise the humour in what he was saying, thus intensifying both the comedy and the pathos, so I guess it was a case of simply needing to strike a more careful balance.
Maureen McConnell turned in a masterful performance in A Lady of
Letters as an elderly single lady who is very fond of writing complaint
letters and getting innocent people into trouble because of it. It was
a quiet performance that spoke volumes above the shuffling feet of latecomers
and the ambient noise from the concert going on next door. I could not
keep my eyes off her - her little twitches and mannerisms were all finely
tuned and when Miss Ruddock finds peace in prison because she finally
has friends in her life, McConnell calibrates the change so finely that
the monologue's last line ("And I'm so happy") comes across as truly
beautiful and inspiring rather than cloying.
Despite the minor criticisms, the production as a whole stood up well. The actors were solid and certainly did justice to what is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest and wittiest scripts ever written. If this is your only chance to watch Talking Heads being performed, you could do far, far worse than this.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /