Guest review: Talking Heads

Written by Daniel Stead

People often refer to Alan Bennett and his body of work as ‘a National Treasure’, and I think for good reason.

What that also means is that every now and then, his best exhibits should be given a good dusting, a bit of a polish, and set out on display in a freshly arranged space; which is an incredibly convenient turn of phrase for what I have just seen at Leeds’ West Yorkshire Playhouse.

In the second of two, three-piece presentations from Bennett’s most famous collection of monologues; we see Cate Hamer in Bed Among the Lentils, Vanessa Rosenthal in A Lady of Letters and Marlene Sidaway in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee.

The other three monologues (A Chip in the Sugar, A Woman of No Importance, Soldiering On) are performed in alternate slots between 14th and 23rd of June, switching between matinee and evening shows.

Although I have faint memories of watching Thora Hird’s televised version of Cream Cracker, the two performances in the first half are entirely new to me.

In this farewell production of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre in its current guise, Laura Ann Price’s adaptable set confirms my initial hope as I enter the auditorium that – it does indeed – rotate, and serves all three pieces well.

Cate Hamer’s interpretation of Lentils’ vicar’s wife Susan tells her story wonderfully; with subtle hand gestures entirely in tune with the ‘beats’ in Bennett’s prose. A clever change in Prema Mehta’s lighting turns Susan’s monologue into a confessional – literally – and draws me into the layers of her story.

What starts as a recognisable caricature of English parish life begins to develop into a tale of a lonely wife experiencing a new relationship, before taking an unexpected turn.

Although the latter feels like a cruel trick to play on a character I completely empathise with, Cate carries it through beautifully in probably the most nuanced of performances in the show.

Vanessa Rosenthal’s Irene in Letters draws the most parallels with a relative of mine, and serves to remind me that even the apparently ‘crazy old people’ are often driven there out of loneliness – a disconnect with the community around them – and this leads to a discussion after the show about what my own reality might be like in 40 or so years time.

I first want the social workers to succeed and make Irene see the world different, but I feel more joy when her stint in jail energises her to a happier resolution.

Although Cream Cracker is a more familiar script, what the TV cut away from has to be done in real time in the theatre – all credit to Marlene Sidaway for the very physical performance of dragging Doris around the stage while delivering a melancholy farewell. And yet the sadness – as with the very best of Bennett – is dotted with witty observations about garden leaves, dogs, and people shouting ‘good news’ through your letterbox.

All three women do justice to their source material, and make their interpretation their own.

In support; Alexandra Braithwaite’s singular musical presence which denotes key passages of time is (intentionally, I think) not much comfort to the bitter comedy extracted throughout. Although there are also some genuine cathartic laughter whenever I recognise something of myself or – more often – family members that have since passed, in all three of the characters on stage.

Bravo to Alan Bennett for capturing personalities that a whole room full of people can identify and, in part, relate to; and bravo to everyone involved in this latest showing of some of Bennett’s treasures – I shall be writing several letters to congratulate you all personally…!

Further information can be found at the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.

Photography credited to Richard H. Smith

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