Lockdown review: Talking Heads 5-8

Alan Bennett is never afraid of tackling the darker side of the human psyche. In this group of monologues he tackles both paedophilia and serial killing: the first from the point of the view of the perpetrator; the second from the perspective of the cleaning-obsessed wife.

In Playing Sandwiches, Wilfred is a shining example of a park worker, a chatty and amenable man. Just one thing is amiss – his personnel records are nowhere to be found. As we follow him through his story, a fuller picture emerges of the man who feels “the only part of my life which feels right is the bit that’s wrong”.

It is a well-crafted piece, directed by Jeremy Herrin, which builds from a light discussion of bureaucratic inefficiency to a series of red flags (the first at a family christening, where “Uncle Wilfred would not be suitable” as godfather).

In befriending single mum Debbie and her young daughter, Wilfred finds himself slipping back into old ways, and as he has been presented as a nice chap, the shift is horrific. Lucian Msamati is quietly brilliant in a role previously played memorably by David Haig.

Bennett himself first appeared in A Chip in the Sugar as mentally-unstable Graham, a repressed gay man and mother’s boy. It feels the most dated of the set in many ways now because of its depiction of the middle-aged son’s paranoia and prissyness, but Martin Freenan does a decent job with both the accent and the situation.

Mum reconnecting with an old flame who has a veneer of cold politeness with Graham and who is her last chance of happiness convinces – although a 72 year old woman now is hardly in the final throes of her romantic life. Herrin directs again here.

Julie Walters played Marjory in the original version of The Outside Dog, but Rochenda Sandell gives the character a hint of desperation and domestic devotion which makes this tale (directed by Nadia Fall) all the more chilling.

Stuart is a slaughterman, who loves his dog Tina. He’s become “much more careful” about swilling the blood off his boots, comes in at all hours (“worked up”), and there’s a serial killer on the loose. Could it be him?

I found this one of the classic episodes in the 90s, but it just stops short here as I didn’t believe this wife, wide-eyed, fearful and tearful, would protect her husband in any way. She is obsessed with cleaning, and has a need to appear in a particular way, but her motivation is questionable.

The alcoholic and resentful vicar’s wife Susan in Bed Among the Lentils is another fantastic performance from Lesley Manville. In being ignored by her patronising husband, she feels freedom in trips to the grocers shop in Leeds.

Her performance is mannered silences, simmering, and, in the midsection of the monologue, illuminated by sunshine. Susan is crushed under the weight of her metrophorical cross, and her tale is a tragic one. Director Nicholas Hytner’s experience of working with both Bennett and Manville shines through here.

There is wit here, of course, about flower arranging, communion wine, and tambourines, but undercut with the depth of loss in a marriage where Susan has simply declined to become “Mrs Vicar”.

Talking Heads remains available on BBCiPlayer. My review of the first four monologues can be found here.

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