Kristin Scott Thomas in The Hand of God (Photo by Zac Nicholson)

Kristin Scott Thomas and Rochenda Sandall shock and disturb in ‘Talking Heads’

Sam Marlowe
Sam Marlowe

Alan Bennett's monologue series Talking Heads is ingeniously booby-trapped. It may look, at first glance, a little safe: all teapots, cosy, unflattering knitwear, and well-kept, conventional suburbia. But pull back the net curtains, and these characters are surviving domesticity in extremis, their personal crises sometimes assuming the proportions of classical tragedy. That could hardly be more true of the pitch-black, bloody tale The Outside Dog (1998), the first in this double bill of playlets from 1998. Directed by Nadia Fall, it's performed with barking, snarling terror, and fury by Rochenda Sandall.

Sandall is Marjory, an ex-teacher fixated with control and cleanliness, whose home is a fortress against visitors. She bleaches it obsessively, and claims to have "trained" her husband Stuart to live in it. He works in a slaughterhouse, and is devoted to his Alsatian dog, Tina (a bizarrely human-sounding name that, like much else here that initially appears incidental, comes to seem sinister). Marjory, unsurprisingly, loathes the creature, and banishes it to an outdoor kennel. But more troublingly, Stuart and Tina begin disappearing together on late-night jaunts, from which Stuart returns in a state of violent sexual excitement. Marjory suspects him of a terrible secret.

Glimpses of atrocity begin to seep out in a stream of vivid, toxic imagery from between Sandall's clenched teeth; we can almost see the dog watching her, tongue lolling, or eagerly licking its master's boots. Her body is taut, her voice almost strangled by helpless rage - and we sense that her compulsions are a desperate attempt to insulate and protect herself from abuse, and her own shame. There's the faintest flicker of eroticism in her description of her well-built husband. But there's also gut-twisting disgust.

Fall's staging decisions doesn't always quite come off. At a key moment, Sandall fully enacts a traumatic incident she's recounting, which feels overwrought and strangely jarring, given the piece's intimate, interiorised tone. But this is a gripping and thoroughly disturbing little drama with a startlingly vicious bite.

By contrast, The Hand of God is from the tamer end of the Talking Heads spectrum, although there's still nastiness beneath its veneer of gentility. Jonathan Kent directs Kristin Scott Thomas as Celia, a snooty, widowed antiques dealer who's not above rooking the frail and elderly out of their heirlooms. Scott Thomas revels in her portrayal, which veers ever so slightly towards the grotesque: she nods delightedly at her own bons mots, shoots a sickly smile through the glass at window-shoppers, and her eyes glint with avarice as she recalls a deathbed vigil at the side of a dowager with some particularly desirable possessions.

Of course, Celia gets her comeuppance - and the manner in which it arrives is pretty predictable.  But if it lacks some subtlety, Scott Thomas's portrait is still a compelling one, of a frosty, supercilious woman who prefers furniture to people, repeatedly remarking on its "character" while oblivious to the defects in her own that seem to have left her with no one much to keep her warm in later life. It's certainly worth seeing; but it's Sandall's savage canine horror story that leaves its mark.

Talking Heads is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 October.

Talking Heads tickets are available now. Book tickets for Talking Heads today.

Photo credit: Kristin Scott Thomas in The Hand of God (Photo by Zac Nicholson)

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