sat 11/07/2020

Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, BBC One review - still lives run deep | reviews, news & interviews

Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, BBC One review - still lives run deep

Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, BBC One review - still lives run deep

Bennett double-bill gives wounding voice to the lonely and the loveless

Take a letter: Imelda Staunton in 'A Lady of Letters'Zac Nicholson/BBC/London Theatre Company

The eyes have it in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, which is in no way to discount this venerable writer's gift for words. Time and again in this vaunted series of dramatic solos, ten of which have now been remade alongside two new ones, a character will interrupt a thought only to be seen peering at us or into the middle distance or directly into the dark heart of psychic disturbance. Now 86, Bennett anatomises lovelessness and despair with a mastery second to none, and the timing of these as we emerge from lockdown tallies directly with a collection of people who themselves know a thing or two about the many and varied forms taken by isolation.

Sheltering in situ is the state of being reached by default in A Lady of Letters (★★★★★), the role of Irene Ruddock, the vengeful busybody first played by Patricia Routledge some four decades ago now handed on to Imelda Staunton who, if anything, is even better in the part. It's difficult to compare thespian genius, but under the direction of Jonathan Kent, who guided Staunton to Olivier Awards for both Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, the half-hour narrative comes newly fueled by a barely suppressed fury that takes the breath away. (Bennett's shift in language ramps up the anger, a climactic "piss off" having been replaced by a considerably more brusque exhortation.) 

Imelda Staunton as Irene in 'A Lady of Letters'Casting judgment on neighbours she doesn't know through net curtains unable to contain her vindictive spirit, Irene is quick to blame and shame. No wonder she relishes writing letters on any and all topics, the efficacy of police wearing glasses to cite but one, only for her to overstep the mark with a supposition too far: Staunton is never better than at the very moment when Irene  her expression hollowed-out by bitterness  realises she has passed the point of no return. Before long, a newly chipper Irene has landed in prison where she finds the company and community that have eluded her all along: "happy", perhaps, as Irene against expectation maintains at the close, but at the price of both self-awareness and sanity.

Gwen, the 46-year-old mum at the troubled heart of An Ordinary Woman (★★★★), is, if anything, cursed by self-awareness. What are these feelings she is harboring towards a 15-year-old son who is himself discovering sex only to awaken erotic yearnings in his own mum? Once again, silence speaks volumes, a moist-eyed Gwen telling us all we need know about the battle raging within. 

As played by the ever-superb Sarah Lancashire (pictured below) in one of two Bennett premieres folded in amongst the remakes, Gwen has no trouble articulating a desire she knows is wrong: things would be easier, she acknowledges, if the source of her newfound passions were a stepson – paging Racine!  – and not her own flesh and blood. That's doubly so once her daughter and husband wise up to what is going on, and Bennett makes Gwen's offscreen family palpably vivid.

Sarah Lancashire as Gwen in 'An Ordinary Woman'Like A Lady of Letters, An Ordinary Woman moves from the domestic to the institutional as the potentially suicidal Gwen reaches the breaking point arrived at by Irene in an altogether different context. (Gwen's implement of self-harm, a hairdryer, is quintessential Bennett.) As directed by Bennett's longtime creative right arm, Nicholas Hytner, with an unerring ear for the baleful rhythms of the piece, Lancashire locates both the grim comedy in therapy-speak ("goals" and the like), alongside the primal agony of someone in thrall to the taboo. 

At times, one feels Bennett overreaching for effect. I'm not entirely convinced that Gwen would be quick to recognise her or any other situation as "Shakespearean", and I hoped against hope that the title of the piece, already given a workout, wouldn't be deployed one final time at the very end. Which it is. Still, references to mobile phones and washing one's hands (!) land An Ordinary Woman in the here and now in contrast with A Lady of Letters, a product of the 1980s that wouldn't work nearly as well in our present-day climate of Twitter and email. Both monologues give damaged souls their dramatic, fully rounded due: "I'm so happy," Gwen, like Irene before her, tells us  – until such time as she's not.

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