Monica Dolan and Lesley Manville deliver tour-de-force performances in ‘Talking Heads’
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, which chronicle the quiet turmoil of lives behind ordinary suburban front doors, have been on an extraordinary journey. They made landmark TV when they first appeared in 1988, with a second series a decade later and various stage versions over the years.
Then this June, mid-lockdown, they arrived back on our screens, along with two new playlets, offering a curious kind of bittersweet comfort. Now eight of those 2020 productions transfer to the stage as part of the Bridge Theatre’s reopening season. They feel like old friends — and even if they’re sometimes dated, it’s good to see them again.
The biggest surprise is how much more nuanced, and more emotionally potent, this first pairing of pieces becomes when witnessed live, eyeball to eyeball with a flesh and blood woman sharing her intimate pain and longing. Designed by Bunny Christie, Nicholas Hytner’s productions are tastefully uncluttered, with melancholic piano-led music by George Fenton and an overlay of video by Luke Halls offering a window-ledge view on the world, bordered by Venetian blinds and garden foliage.
There’s always a whisper of clever contrivance in the curlicues of Bennett’s spikily witty verbiage, which often achieves its comic effect by intertwining the ornate and the banal. But these are stories that call our attention to the detail in the everyday: that prompt us to wonder about our neighbours, the passerby in the street, the fellow bus passenger; and to feel connected, especially in these strangest of times, by our common humanity.
In The Shrine (2020), Monica Dolan plays Lorna, whose husband has recently been killed in a motorcycle accident. Determined that attention be paid to his passing, and puzzled and disturbed by her own numbness, she turns the roadside spot of his demise into a makeshift shrine. As the circumstances of his death emerge, she realises he had an entire existence outside their comfortable home of which she had no clue.
Bennett is shrewd on the dynamics of long-term relationships, and on the ultimate inscrutability of the other: however well we think we know our partners and lovers, there are always corners of mystery. Hytner directs with deft sensitivity, and Dolan, perched at her kitchen table in front of her defiantly cheerful pea-green teapot, makes us feel every stab and ache of Lorna’s loneliness and loss without a scintilla of self-pity.
Lesley Manville, hollow-eyed with scraped back hair and papery skin, is still more devastating in Bed Among the Lentils (1988). She’s Susan, an alcoholic vicar’s wife, choking in a desiccated marriage, gossiped about by her husband’s parishioners, and drowning her wretchedness in communion wine and corner shop sherry. She glimpses divinity in the backroom of an Asian shopkeeper’s store, where, among his statues and pictures of sensual Hindu deities, they meet for tender and ecstatic sex.
What’s most lacerating about Manville’s performance is its appalling sense of waste: her Susan is sharp-minded, keen-eyed, and yet so helplessly stymied by her predicament. In fact, Talking Heads is crammed with marital misery: its parade of women in sad cardigans, their lives predicated on absent, abusive, and uninterested men can feel like an old-fashioned and reductive depiction of female experience. But there’s no denying the potency of the acting here. Authentic and note-perfect, it’s a breathtaking two-woman tour de force.
Talking Heads is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 October.
Photo credit: Lesley Manville in The Bed Among the Lentils at The Bridge Theatre (Photo by Zac Nicholson)