Alan Bennett writes great parts for women. His Talking Heads monologue series was first presented on television in 1988 and 1998, totalling twelve plays of which ten have been remade during lockdown. They have been supplemented by two new pieces.
With numerous repeats and a memorable cast for the original recordings, the new versions have huge shoes to fill. In watching the remade pieces (not updated in any way for the 21st century, which adds to their charm), I could hear the voices of Patricia Routledge, Stephanie Cole, and Julie Walters speaking the lines: but these new versions are gems in their own right.
First up was A Lady of Letters, performed by Imelda Staunton and directed by Jonathan Kent. A repressed middle-aged spinster, Irene writes letters on every little point, innocently enough to start with (a “lapse” at a funeral service) but leading to something far more sinister. Staunton’s interfering busybody may have pure poison in her “trusty pen” but the measured performance makes her human, and the story remains very powerful.
Next was one of the two new pieces, An Ordinary Woman, which proves Bennett has lost none of his gift of observing the sidelines of everyday life. He is often regarded as a “safe” writer but this piece, about a mother and son, is anything but, and is beautifully performed by Sarah Lancashire as Gwen. Completely convincing in the extraordinary emotions which overtake her, this is a modern tragedy, tightly-scripted and beautifully directed by Nicholas Hytner.
Soldiering On is “not a tragic story”, but it left me welling up, as Harriet Walter’s wealthy widow Muriel, stalwart of the coffee morning circuit, deals with the loss of her husband, family revelations, and the poor choices of her son, who is “too upset” to face up to their consequences. With each scene as her financial and social situation diminishes, we feel and see the pain behind her brightly-expressed speech, and Walter plays the role perfectly. Director Marianne Elliott catches the tone with ease.
The final piece in this group is Her Big Chance, the story of Lesley, a bit-part actress who finds herself facing her big break in the movies. Jodie Comer gives Lesley an edge of naviety which makes the viewer really fear for her safety in the industry, and although I didn’t feel as emotionally engaged with this piece (I never did) as the others, I thought the decision to end in a way which suggests the character does understand what has happened was very relevant to recent discussions around abuse of young actresses. Josie Rourke directs.
Bennett’s gift as a monologuist is in saying so much in such a short time (these pieces run between 25 and 35 minutes). He teases out the people who sit behind the twitching net curtains, who queue behind you in the supermarket, who travel on the bus with you, who are the person in your family you never really get to know.