Talking Heads

Alan Bennett

Octagon Theatre Bolton

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

From 08 June 2017 to 08 July 2017

Review by David Upton

Writer Alan Bennett admits in the programme notes here that the reason his monologues work on stage is not so much because of the laughs as the silences.

So quite why this production of three of the much-loved playlets need to be punctuated by a cacophony of sound and light between scene changes, is anyone’s guess. Bennett is the master chronicler of the life of the quiet and unassuming and these directorial flourishes are at odds with the material.

The domestic diorama against which they are performed, with jerky walls and staircase, or fractured carpeting panels, is also out of place with stories that only need the most confined of spaces in which to live and breathe.

Fortunately, the work constantly rises above this added clamour to provide a funny, thoughtful and ultimately moving evening’s entertainment. The original 13 TV monologues now enjoy an embedded National Treasure status and were performed by some of the country’s leading actors—so no pressure on the three performers who step into their shoes!

Bennett himself was Graham in A Chip In The Sugar, but David Birrell assumes the role with all the usual delicate detail this abundantly versatile actor brings to his performances. The slightest of inflections, or movement, convey all the trauma felt when Graham learns of a new man in his mam’s life.

Cathy Tyson makes a rapid return to the Octagon, after appearing in last month’s Winter Hill, to pick up the poison Platignum of Irene, the Lady of Letters whose scurrilous neighbourhood correspondence proves to be her salvation. She is another skilled performer who just needs to find the rhythm, and the pauses for laughter, in her role.

Sue Wallace takes on the most demanding character of Doris, the largely-supine pensioner in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee. She’s fending off the threat of internment in the dreaded Stafford House in her own dogged fashion.

These are all lives taken from a tapestry we instantly recognise, and why they never lose their power, whatever misplaced theatrical bombast may be thrown at them.