After a successful run of preview performances earlier in the summer, CTL Productions Talking Heads returns to Taurus for a longer run. This time, shows featured four tales: Kathy Francis as Susan in ‘A Bed Amongst the Lentils’, Jane Leadbetter as Marjory in ‘The Outside Dog’, both of which were previously reviewed here and Christopher Graham as Graham in ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ and finally Carolyn Hood as Irene in ‘A Lady of Letters’.
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads had an long gestation for it’s original transmission on BBC Television in the 1980’s. A synonym for boredom within the television world, Bennett was trying to produce engaging monologues reflecting on common and innocous enough circumstances, but also with hooks to ping the story of onto another tangent. His unusual structure, and roster of guest actors to perform the monologues ensured that they remained a firm favourite on television and radio for many years afterwards.
Staging them is a brave move. When writing the scripts for television, they were designed with camera cuts in mind, so should the actor make a mistake, they wouldn’r have to repeat the whole thing from the beginning again. Here, on stage, our actors have no such luxury. All four actors cope remarkably well with the lengthy texts. The creative decision by director Abbie Talbot to have two monologues occurring on stage at the same time and to cut between them is a shrewd move – not only for the audience watching, but the actors performing.
The actual staging of these tales is light and delicate, reflecting each character’s personality without being overbearing. Irene’s trademark letter holder and pen and Marjory’s obsessive cleaning habits giving us the first indication that all may not be as it seems with our narrators.
One thing that all the characters have in common is their ignorance of their faults. Susan is concerned about perception of her drink problem without realising the whole parish knows she is an alcoholic; Graham cannot let go of his mother etc. Bennett’s writing and director Abbie Talbot’s direction subtly draws the audience’s attention to this throughout the tales.
Bennett has commented that ‘A Chip in the Sugar’ and ‘Bed Amongst the Lentils’ could have been made ‘as plays proper’. By this, he means a multi-person narrative, allowing us to meet Mrs. Shrubsoil, and Susan’s husband to see if they are actually as overbearing as the narrative would suggest. Yet, part of what makes Talking Heads so successful is to allow yourself to be swept along by your narrator. Where in the televised versions, the actor looks straight down the camera, here, the actor is looking straight at you. All the actors concerned play to the room, looking straight at members of the audience, adding to the unnerving feeling of being trapped with someone you’re not quite sure of.
Carolyn Hood’s energetic performance as Irene looks straight through the audience – by necessity for her character. Wavering from funny to sinister, her moral crusade through her letter writing is her undoing, and only towards the end does Hood steer her character to directly address the audience rather than look through them. Hood’s indignation at society is perfectly pitched and she provides much delight for the audience as her crusade spirals out of control.
Christopher Graham is quite reserved as underachiever Graham. There are flashes of anger in his performance, such is his level of jealously for the relationship between his mother and Mr. Turnbull. Such emotion is subtle, the care with which Graham takes over assembling his model train a counterpoint to his jealousy. Graham aptly shows us what happens when his daily routine is threatened to be shattered and treads a line between hysteria and contentment in a moving piece.
It is a shame that these tales pass so quickly, such is the delight they bring. Each have their own twist and are very well chosen. The full performance of Talking Heads is yet another success. The intimate atmosphere adds to the feeling of being welcomed into these characters lives, whilst the homespun moralising is not laid on too thickly. Sharp and stingy even now as they were on original transmission, this impressive staging demonstrates how Talking Heads has endured.
The Fiction Stroker gives Talking Heads five strokes out of five: