Talking Heads: A Chip in the Sugar / Bed Among the Lentils / Soldiering On

Alan Bennett
Gala Theatre
Gala Theatre, Durham

Ross Walton in A Chip in the Sugar
Zoe Lambert in Bed Among the Lentils
Judi Earl in Soldiering On
Ross Walton in A Chip in the Sugar
Zoe Lambert in Bed Among the Lentils
Judi Earl in Soldiering On

Alan Bennett has a unique voice—I don’t mean in the metaphorical sense (although that’s also true) but in his actual speaking voice—and we hear that voice in these three Talking Heads. It is, however, the measure of his skill as a writer (and the skill of the actors) that each is also a distinct, indeed unique, individual.

They’re all—at least on the surface—nice, middle-class Yorkshire people. Graham in A Chip in the Sugar may be towards the bottom of the middle-class spectrum and Muriel in Soldiering On towards the top, with vicar’s wife Susan from Bed Among the Lentils firmly in the middle, but they would recognise their kinship.

And they simply talk to the audience. Hence, of course, the title. Originally, Bennett wrote twelve monologues for BBC TV in 1988 and 1989 but the first series (which contains these three plays), along with the free-standing piece A Woman of No Importance, are the ones which are most produced as plays nowadays. The phrase Talking Heads is, in fact, from the world of TV and simply means a programme or segment of a programme in which someone simply talks to camera.

A most unpromising premise for either a TV drama or a stage play!

And yet these plays both grip and entertain; behind the nice, middle-class Yorkshire voices are seething emotions and a sense of the true loneliness of each individual. And to make it just that wee bit more difficult, the three actors in this production are following in the footsteps of Bennett himself, Maggie Smith and Stephanie Cole. No pressure there, then.

They bring it off. They really do.

In A Chip in the Sugar, Ross Walton takes us so completely inside Graham’s mind that we become complicit in his total selfishness and disregard of his mother’s happiness, whilst Zoe Lambert’s alcoholic, unhappy Susan (Bed Among the Lentils) engages our sympathies totally, as we view her world—her popular vicar husband, his band of devoted lady parishioners, the young Bishop, even God—with the same disenchantment she feels.

Judi Earl’s Muriel (Soldiering On) is soldiering on, in spite of all the problems and major upsets that life (and her family) have thrown at her. We feel so deeply for her but have to wonder: is this wilful blindness of hers the only way she can survive? We do feel so deeply sorry for her and at the same time admire her strength. Or is it a refusal to face reality? Weakness rather than strength? Yet another excellent performance.

That, of course, is the power of Bennett’s writing: all nice and middle-class on the surface, but with pain and unhappiness underneath, and still more depth below that. And he finds humour there, too; gentle, somewhat wry, but humour nonetheless.

Simon Wells’s set adds considerably to the impact of the piece, so (seemingly!) simple and very flexible that a minor change can bring in a change of mood or circumstance, and Daniel Smith’s lighting design is both sympathetic and subtle. The music, composed and arranged by Oli Jackson and integrated into the overall sound design by Tez Errington, adds yet more depth and subtlety.

Director Charlotte Westenra weaves all these strands together deftly to create a memorable production of three modern classic monologues, a very worthy follow-up to last year’s in-house production of Educating Rita. Keep it up, Gala! You’re doing it right!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan