Talking Heads: A Chip in the Sugar

Alan Bennett
London Theatre Company
BBC iPlayer
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Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman has perhaps the most unenviable task of them all, being asked to portray Graham Whitaker, the character played by Alan Bennett himself in the original series of Talking Heads.

On the plus side, Freeman benefits from the directorial support of the ever-reliable Jeremy Herrin.

Like so many Bennett characters, not to mention the playwright / actor himself, Graham is the kind of quiet, self-effacing man that nobody would notice if they passed his like in the street.

Unemployed Graham may be refined but he is decidedly unfashionable, clearly the archetypal mother’s boy, and is suffering from “mental health issues”.

In what is almost certainly more closely autobiographical than any of the other pieces, the playwright explores in detail the mutual appreciation society that has developed between Graham and his mildly amnesiac mother.

While her short-term memory may be failing, 72-year-old Mum has a better recollection of the distant past, happily recalling old times, especially after bumping into an old flame of half a century and more before, in pre-Graham and marriage days.

Flashy, obnoxious Frank Turnbull who, in Graham’s eyes, “could’ve been a bookie”, seems keen to revive their slightly shady seaside affair 52 years after the event.

However, it doesn’t take too long to discover that this charmer is a bigot with an agenda, although soon enough marriage is on the cards.

A Chip in the Sugar is darkly humorous and something of a rarity in this series, since the twist comes far closer to the tail than is usually the case.

Martin Freeman may not be Alan Bennett but he does a fine job in painting a sympathetic portrait of an insecure, vulnerable man facing trying circumstances, showing Graham’s pained response to an uncomfortable situation with finely nuanced appreciation of character.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher