Imelda Staunton in Lady of Letters at the Bridge Theatre (Photo by Zac Nicholson)

Imelda Staunton and Lucian Msamati deliver captivating performances in 'Talking Heads'

At this point, Alan Bennett's Talking Heads are an institution in and of themselves. Having screened twelve of Bennett's miniature character studies on the BBC during lockdown, The Bridge has transplanted eight of these monologues into their autumn repertory season. Playing Sandwiches (originally written in 1988) and Lady of Letters (1998) are undeniably dated (references to community policing in Lady of Letters feel particularly antiquated), but are still quintessential Bennett — banally funny, bleak, and humane, often all at once.

Playing Sandwiches begins unassumingly enough — Lucian Msamati plays parks attendant Wilfred with a concerted impassivity, flatly recounting his trips to the local sweet shop and interactions with a mother and child he befriends under the park's bandstand, always ready with an indifferent shrug. He shuffles about the stage, sweeping up leaves, various pauses scored by Gareth Fry's somewhat syrupy piano interludes. It's all shot through with a profound sense of melancholy which remains just out of reach; a real sense of unease that creeps up behind its audience.

Just when you might have written it off comes Bennett's deftly handled narrative rug pull — the kind which makes every seemingly banal detail that came before it shine with new, appalling resonance. It is a finely crafted piece of writing — each piece wound up and slotting into the others with precision, but its general quietness, coupled with the opacity of the protagonist can result in a slight sense of remove.

Jeremy Herrin's staging is lowkey, and largely static, relying more on the strength of the performances and writing above anything else, and Playing Sandwiches can suffer a little as a result. Regardless, Msamati's performance takes on increasing power as the piece unfurls itself, finding poetry in the simplicity of the text, unafraid of lingering pauses. When the pin drops, it's genuinely heart-stopping.

By contrast, Lady of Letters is a bolt of frazzled energy. Imelda Staunton plays Miss Ruddock, the titular lady, with constant, barely suppressed irritation — a brittle woman wound tight, eaten up by an overwhelming sense of loneliness which she attempts to curb by spying on her neighbours and writing increasingly incensed letters of complaint to various organisations, ranging from her local optician to Buckingham Palace.

Staunton relishes the role, tight-roping between bristling indignation and searing desperation, holding herself unbearably taut in her seat, occasionally lapsing into pauses which hang in the air with awful weight. There is a slight broadness to Lady, however — perhaps too much time spent on her eccentricities, and not enough on the pain tucked away under the surface. But Staunton's performance is beautifully entertaining, always receding and blooming, almost musical in its responsiveness to the audience, and precisely modulated by Jonathan Kent's uncomplicated, if somewhat uninspiring direction.

Photo credit: Imelda Staunton in Lady of Letters at the Bridge Theatre (Photo by Zac Nicholson)

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