Alan Bennett has come to Manchester for two nights only in CTL Productions staging of Talking Heads. Four of the iconic monologues were performed at Taurus Bar over the weekend featuring some of Manchester’s finest actors in these highly regarded pieces. Bennett’s popularity for capturing numerous diverse voices has remained undiminished and with writing of this calibre, it is not difficult to see why.
This review is for Friday night’s performance which starred Kathy Francis in “A Bed Amongst the Lentils” which looks at the life of Susan, an alcoholic vicar’s wife who ends up having an affair with a local shopkeeper and Jane Leadbetter in “The Outside Dog” where clean freak Marjorie realises that her husband is using his job at a slaughterhouse to cover up his role in a series of murders.
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series has always endured. His highly observational, chatty and intimate style combined with some of the best talent on stage and screen (Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge and Dame Thora Hird to name but a few) have ensured that the series was a success. Through the use of one narrator, his writing really gets to the heart of the plot as the audience become complicit in the unfolding drama.
Interestingly, CTL Productions staging of Talking Heads splits the monologues up alternating between the two. Initially, I thought this to be slightly jarring – but the two well-chosen pieces mirror each other so beautifully, that very quickly I realised that this was a shrewd move to make as the breaks allow mini-cliffhangers to let the story develop at its own, more natural pace. Subtle lighting changes and detailed staging also added to the atmosphere.
The crucial test for any actor performing one of these pieces is the ability to convey a diverse range of characters convincingly. Fortunately, Francis and Leadbetter are more than up to the challenge. Francis’s Susan is wonderfully disdainful of everyone around her as alcoholic tendencies take control whilst Leadbetter’s Marjorie is compellingly oblivious to everything going on around her other than her obsessive cleaning. As the tales develop, Francis’s mischievous nature really gains momentum as the initially prim and proper Susan melts into the arms of Ramesh whilst Leadbetter convincingly portrays the strain and confusion, and possible OCD of Marjorie – both actors have clearly had fun with this material.
Both stories have flashes of humour in them, Susan’s calamity at the flower-arranging, Marjorie’s obsessive practices of not having the dog in the house yet both stories also have elements of betrayal in them – Marjorie is ultimately broken by the betrayal of her husband, yet Susan is effectively reborn by hers. Balancing Susan’s almost Carry On style antics against the dark Tales of the Unexpected-esque drama of Marjorie’s serial killer husband sets each tale apart neatly as you waver from laughter to something entirely more sinister.
Given the skill of Alan Bennett’s writing, it would be difficult to get the staging of these wrong. Pleasingly though, this production was flawless – Abbie Talbot’s direction being tight and with some great creative decisions in place. I was very disappointed not to be able to catch Carolyn Hood and Christopher Graham in the two other Talking Heads being performed this time round as from talking to them, they were clearly proud to be talking part in dramatising Bennett’s work. CTL Productions is a relatively young company that is already making a name for itself within Manchester, and with talent like this working with them, and their innovation and enthusiasm showing, it isn’t difficult to see why.
The Fiction Stroker gives Talking Heads five strokes out of five:
Talking Heads will return in September. For further updates, keep looking on the CTL Productions website!