Wednesday 20th June 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Alan Bennett really is a genius. Every so often, I forget this fact but a perfectly staged production like this becomes an impressive reminder. West Yorkshire Playhouse is producing the first 6 dramatic monologues of Bennet’s Talking Heads which landed in living rooms in 1988 and the six monologues have been divided into two productions. You can see either Graham, Peggy and Muriel or Susan, Doris and Irene. I caught Susan, Doris and Irene yesterday and I fell in love with Bennett’s writing all over again. Three stellar actresses take on three cracking characters and their performances are both gripping and nigh on perfect. This is a wonderful production of some of Bennett’s best work and each dramatic monologue is as skilful in delivery as it is in writing thanks to the superb performances of the cast. Bennett’s vignettes are saturated with wit and topped off with poignancy which arrives without warning – which is always the best kind. The writing is sharply observant, deeply knowing, charmingly everyday and bitingly satirical – albeit with the bite being a pair of loose dentures rather than a nasty set of gnashers. Yet the characters themselves aren’t necessarily witty; they remain too wrapped up in their own meandering musings and critiques of others to notice just how many home truths they are really revealing. Direction is a joint venture from James Brining, Amy Leach and John R.Wilkinson, a trio with evident love for Mr Bennett, who has become something of the Yorkshire Bard. Susan. The long- suffering Vicar’s wife who must sacrifice her time and patience to her husband’s work. A woman who navigates the cross fire of women living the small village life. The Vicar’s wife who finds release in surprising places. A vicar’s wife who sins, and enjoys it. Cate Hamer is quietly hilarious as the thoroughly fed up Susan and is particularly brilliant when it comes to re-enacting exchanges. Bennett’s writing slowly draws out each of Susan’s secrets, carefully positioning each revelation to receive its own big laugh and Hamer’s take on his famous lines are so spot on that no comic line fails to land and even when not laughing, the audience is at least smiling or smirking at least. In Bed Among the Lentils, we see a woman past her prime regretting all she never got to do, and lamenting the daily irritations faced by a woman wed to God by proxy. Bennett explores everything from religion and relationships to comical British etiquette and the political irony of churches funding futile flower arranging. Most enjoyable is the surprising invitation to contemplate whether some sins are a very well deserved release. Looking at Susan and listening to her woes, we manage to enjoy her moment of naughtiness because we have momentarily lived the mundanity of her life for comedy’s sake and that leads directly to the conclusion that such a life is hideous enough to merit a little indulgent sinning.
Irene. The most perspicacious member of the silver generation to ever grace Yorkshire. A woman who’s wrath takes the shape of pen and paper. Another woman alone. Another woman with standards. Another woman to find release in an unexpected place. Vanessa Rosenthal delivers this monologue as something of a statement of defence, laying bare the flaws of others while showing her own flaws without ever realising. Rosenthal’s portrayal is immovable about beliefs and tragically undeterrable. There’s an increasing level of poignancy across the three monologues featured in this production and Irene takes the middle ground. Her readiness to take issue with everything and everyone is a source of great comedy – you could even imagine a snide note pointing out the spot of mud left on her doormat a day after visiting. Her devotion to writing the world’s wrongs away makes her risible but also dangerous as she reveals some of the letters she has laced with accusations before posting them without regard for gaining solid facts before endangering the future of a stranger who caught her critical eye for a fleeting second. The catalyst for this pastime leads back to the road sign marked poignancy though and although our final vision of this character is a semi-hilarious and surprising one, it is also steeped in melancholy as we realise that a life dreaded by so many is actually a release to Irene. A Lady of Letters shows us recognisable and even relatable busybody territory to show us that the devil really does make work for idle hands.
Doris. A woman in her later years. A woman with unshakeable standards in every regard. A woman alone at home, and injured. Marlene Sidaway is wonderful as this very particular member of an older generation attempting to side step social workers, ‘old people’ who smell and old folks’ homes. Disgruntled with her inability to maintain the standards she’s upheld for decades, Doris gets herself in a pickle and ends up stranded and reflecting on pivotal moments of her life. Despite her throwaway critiques of those trying to help, Sidaway makes us like Doris. Her tales are nostalgic and relatable enough to invite nods from knowing members of the audience and her pride is a source of both respect and entertainment. Yet as with all of Bennett’s characters, Doris has skeletons; not the kind that land you in trouble, but memories of experiences now unspoken because…well, she has no one to speak to. The poignancy of this piece lies not just in the injury of a vulnerable woman or her personal pains, but the insight into the lives of an invisible generation who are set aside or tucked away in homes. A Cream Cracker Under the Settee shines a light on the elderly which both lays bare the judgemental, unforgiving standards held by women raised in a time of housewives and housework alongside the tragic recognition that Dorises are living like this one all over the country behind closed doors, alone with their memories and their frustrations.
Laura Ann Price’s set is perfection; a blank space which becomes three different homes with a little minor swapping of choice furniture. The construction sits on the Courtyard stage and is pivoted to allow for set changes, leaving the audience with an external sight of a billboard as Prema Mehta’s lighting design begins to shift in anticipation of the next character to appear. The internal design places the characters as portraits coming to life; the walls toy with perspective as there are only three of them, set at angles to create the illusion of a whole room with a small doorway at the very end. Mehta’s lighting gives the blank walls various textures and each of them mimics patterns of wallpaper or different hues of paint – but the walls appear brush-stroked by an artist rather than a roller and the women appear to be walking talking paintings come to life. It’s an inspired design which functions as a means to tame the problematic expanse of a large stage when the focal point for thirty or so minutes apiece is one individual alone. This beautiful surrealist perspective trickery matches Bennett’s satirical, removed but also involved writing and draws us readily to our focal point: Doris, Susan and Irene.
So go on, grab your felt coat and corduroy cap and fetch some tickets to see the real women of the world staring back at you – they won’t offer you tea, but they’ll treat you to a one-sided, brilliant natter to pass the evening away.