Tamsin Greig and Maxine Peake give 'acting masterclasses' in Talking Heads
Any season of work that’s taking place in a London theatre at the moment is worthy of five stars in my book. The Bridge Theatre’s proving that there is no business like showbusiness, with its Talking Heads season allowing audiences to witness — quite simply — acting masterclasses from Britain’s finest actors. After Alan Bennett’s monologues were revived on our screens earlier this year, it seems fitting to the British "keep calm and carry on" mentality that we’re still able to enjoy these monologues as a piece of live theatre, even in the height of a global pandemic.
Sure, there’s times where references are dated. Take Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, first performed in 1988, in which Miss Fozzard continually repeats the gag of an "Australian woman as a female dog." But, there’s also nods to societal values barely changing at all, especially in Nights in the Garden of Spain where Rosemary suggests that "nobody can trust the Daily Mail." These fleeting moments and these quick allusions to their way of life that it becomes clear Talking Heads monologues aren’t just drama. They’re social commentaries that have stood the test of time.
The monologue double-bill starts with Nights in the Garden of Spain, following Rosemary as she inwardly looks at her own marriage, becoming close friends with a woman who’s just murdered her husband. From the constant laughter after everything she says to assure herself, down to moments of pause as self-reflection, Tamsin Greig’s delivery captures Rosemary’s want for change. There are moments where the performance just feels like a FaceTime — sitting in a solo seat at the Bridge had me peering into a window like you’re talking to a close relative. But, in Rosemary's endearing quality and her desire to become free came a bitter sense of hopelessness.
It’s not until the final scene, where the light is dimmed, that Rosemary finally wrestles with her emotions. Coming clean to herself, she realises that she can’t change her life, however hard she may try. Sitting there in silence, the air became bleak and empty, and I'm not embarassed to say I shed a few tears.
As Rosemary’s freedom is snatched from her before it’s barely begun, the darkly comic, tongue-in-cheek Miss Fozzard in Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet offers that light relief we need in heaps and bounds. Maxine Peake plays Miss Fozzard, an older woman who finds relief from caring for her brother by visiting a new chiropodist. Even though we don’t meet the practitioner, his different treatments are made clear, thanks to Sarah Frankcom’s direction of "the booties walking up and down the back." Peake’s flirtatious mannerisms bring this confident, assured woman to life, landing all the laughs whenever needed. But, we also see how she must hide her emotions; closed off on the sofa when she’s with her brother against the strutting at the front of the stage when she’s with the chiropodist.
There’s one scene in particular, where to help her brother, Fozzard asks him to "skip around the word and come back to it." Skirting around points for minutes on end, it’s eventually up to her to just say what he means, irregardless of consequence. Where Rosemary shied away in the first monologue, Miss Fozzard relishes in her newfound confidence, releasing her thoughts into the world.
Multiple standing ovations and rapturous applause around the auditorium spoke for themselves. In just under 80 minutes, we’d been transported both back in time to visit two of Bennett’s acclaimed monologues, while sitting in an auditorium that’s open according to today’s social distancing guidelines. Who knows what a "talking head" about coronavirus would entail, but in the age of a global pandemic, it felt right to revisit older works in this celebratory season.
Photo credit: Tamsin Greig in Nights of the Garden of Spain at the Bridge Theatre (Photo by Zac Nicholson)