Alan Bennett’s TALKING HEADS on tour

You can’t go wrong with Alan Bennett. His words are so well chosen, his observations so accurate that his work becomes real, like over-hearing a conversation on the top of a bus rather than watching a play. This is something he shares with Harold Pinter – they both use words, phrases and rhythms that other playwrights discard. They both glory in the mundane existence of ordinary lives, thus making reality appear quirky, eccentric even. But both Pinter and Bennett write as real people talk with all the repetitions, asides, pauses and mundaneness that make up everyday speech and conversation. Your average playwright leaves all this out, carefully honing his text so the dialogue flows smoothly without let or hindrance. Good drama perhaps, but not the way people actually speak, not always very real.

The problem with Bennett, with Talking Heads in particular, is that it is a hard act to follow. Each of the twelve plays that were done on television is so inextricably associated with the actor who originally performed it that it is difficult to avoid comparisons – and which actor would want to be compared to Maggie Smith or Alan Bennett himself?

The Amsterdam-based QE2 company has, for their current short tour, taken on two of the Talking Heads – A Bed Among the Lentils and A Chip in the Sugar.

I very much liked Mark Winstanley’s sad Graham Whittaker in the latter. With his crumpled suit, thick grey woollen socks and sandals, this was much camper, much more vulnerable than Bennett’s portrayal. Graham’s story about how his quiet, satisfied life with his aging mother is disrupted when a flashy old flame of hers arrives on the scene is heart-rending. Winstanley really made us believe the helplessness and Graham’s fear of being plunged even deeper into the well of loneliness.

Each of the Talking Heads is about loneliness and isolation and in A Bed Among the Lentils we meet Susan, a vicar’s wife who does not believe in God, or much else. Her husband is a cheery do-gooder who fails to give her a good doing and she finds solace in the bottle and the arms of a corner-shop Indian newsagent. This was a much more low-key affair, both in the writing and in Loveday Smith’s finely tuned portrayal, but by no means lessened by that. It was a sensitive and well-observed performance of an unfulfilled, lonely woman.

With both Graham and Susan one feels like a helpless by-stander, unable to do anything to alleviate their situation and steer them to better lives. The problem is in their personalities, not their circumstances. In both plays it is like watching a figure floundering, drifting out to sea, not waving but drowning.

This is the first production by QE2, a spin-off of the Queen’s English Theatre Company and Mark Winstanley and Loveday Smith travel light, each doing the sound and lighting for the other. I think their choice for their inaugural production was well made, the only thing I would say was that perhaps it might be better to do the two plays the other way round, with the stronger A Chip in the Sugar second-up. But that is just a niggle. I really enjoyed this double-bill and would certainly recommend it, not only because of two well-judged and very highly watchable performances, but because, as I said, you can’t go wrong with Alan Bennett.    Michael Hasted, seen at de Pletterij in Haarlem on 9th June 2018

Listen to our exclusive interview with Loveday Smith and Mark Winstanley which is an extended version of the one broadcast in DutchBuzz on Den Haag FM on 12th June 2018

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23rd June       ’t Kapelletje, van der Sluysstraat 176, Rotterdam