Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Shropshire Events and Whats On Guide

Theatre Review: TALKING HEADS

Conrad Nelson as Graham Photo by Andrew Billington

Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Talking Heads”, which runs at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme until February 16th 2013.

I met Alan Bennett once, at a writing seminar in London. An aspiring playwright asked him what he thought of the latest crop of young writers and he suggested they should all have been drowned at birth. He’ll be 80 next year; he has a brand new play at The National Theatre and is an odds-on National Treasure – largely because of ‘Talking Heads’, which sideswiped the BBC2-watching nation in 1988.

Rather like ‘Fawlty Towers’, there are 12 ‘Talking Heads’ and everybody has their favourite episode. Three of the best are currently being directed by Gwenda Hughes at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and they are an absolute delight.

Alan Bennett has such a distinctive writer’s voice you can actually hear it, no matter who is saying the lines. His minutely detailed accounts of the lives of lonely, inadequate souls are tiny tragic-comedies that peel away the pretensions of our society to reveal a sample handful of the forgotten millions. I remembered the writing as being a kind of razor-sharp bumbling.

My main concern on the drive over to Stoke was how these intimate, face-to-face tele one-handers would translate to the circular arena of the New Vic. Surely, the one character on stage would always have their back to half the audience, so there’d be nothing to look at for periods of time. And would there be the intimacy?

I needn’t have worried. It all worked like a hypnotic charm.

All three actors arrive together to remove the dust sheets from the workaday domestic set and then Conrad Nelson is left on his tod for 30 minutes to tell us about Graham Whittaker and his 72 year old mum in “A Chip in the Sugar”. The chip in question is found in a sugar bowl in a rather gaudy red café (we are told) to which a long lost boy friend has taken ‘mother’ at the start of an unlikely relationship.

Bearing in mind this is the part Bennett played himself on TV, Nelson does a remarkable job of making the role entirely his own without doing anything unpleasant to it. His straight-backed performance gives us a sense of the public persona of the character, whilst the monologue reveals the defensive inadequacies of a deeply insecure man on medication, who’s about to have his mother taken away from him.

There are great lines, exquisitely delivered without any fuss. “Give me your teeth, Mother. I’ll swill them” sums up the relationship in eight words. And the line “Graham would have made a good parson – if he’d believed in God” is a perfect summary of the character.

As with much of Bennett’s writing, the humour tumbles out unexpectedly. There’s a particularly good gag about Tesco’s, which is funnier now than Bennett could possibly have imagined a quarter of a century ago.

Graham hands a milk bottle to Irene and we’re into “A Lady of Letters” in which Hazel Maycock plays an aging woman whose main contact with the outside world seems to be via correspondence; often one-sided. Back from the Crem – “a funeral is an outing” – she picks up her trusty platinum to dash off another letter of complaint to the long suffering authorities. She’s proud of the fact she’s written to the Queen about dog dirt outside Buckingham Palace and harangued her MP about prisoners having TVs in their cells. (For more examples of the kind of letters she writes, just pick up the Shropshire Star any night.) But beneath her worthy do-gooder façade, the letters are becoming increasingly poisonous and she has to be ‘dealt with’ – which, ironically, gives her even more to gossip about.

Chris Eldon Lee
Chris Eldon Lee

Once again Maycock is playing a character who is perfectly normal on the outside but edgily eccentric within. She plays her like a homely farmer’s wife with a concealed cleaver.

The interval arrived and I was eagerly anticipating Roberta Kerr in “A Cream Cracker Under the Settee”. But the audience was looking anxiously out of the windows at all the snow smothering Stoke and I reluctantly joined the ranks of those deciding to make an early start on the struggle home.

Doubtless I missed a final gem.

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