A series of monologues spoken by defeated, self-deluding or lonely characters can’t but invoke memories of Alan Bennett’s masterly Talking Heads. But Benedick West’s nine short pieces (of which eight are performed daily under Andrew Loudon’s direction) make no more than a hasty foray into this territory. Each character speaks for some ten minutes, usually revealing a secret or reversal of feeling or a failing obvious to us but unacknowledged by the speaker. There is little time to develop psychological depth or to give more than a hint of why things have reached whatever pretty pass we are presented with. These are quick, broad-brush sketches, bite-size tasters and as such rarely satisfying.
Women outnumber men. Here is Maureen (who, interestingly, acknowledges the audience; it is not always clear whether we are interlocutors, eavesdroppers or inside the speaker’s head) making an exaggerated case for a relationship with a man she is - as swiftly becomes clear - relentlessly stalking. She is gamely played by Felicity Duncan, who reappears as Eva, a cleaner given to the most unlikely malapropisms (eggplant for implant?). West’s picture of Eva is rather patronising, but this is surpassed by the script he gives Tina who falls to the lot of Ann Micklethwaite. Tina, who works in a tampon factory, likes chips and is happy to be pregnant again so as to get more out of the “social”, is an amalgam of every conceivable middle class prejudice. Brave Micklethwaite almost breathes credibile life into this stereotype.
Posh Candida (Sarah Lloyd), with her green wellies and passion for the Lithuanian home help, is scarcely less of a caricature. Among the men, Richard Leaf’s seedy Desmond has a sad and unlikely dream of opening a sex shop, despite being paralysed from the waist down. This fantasy (which includes nice teas with open sandwiches in the massage parlour) has the beginnings of a more interesting piece. Sion Tudor Owen as former docker Terence makes the most of a tender description of birth and baby-love, but hasn’t enough time to turn satisfactorily from that to anger about his son’s subsequent behaviour or to explore his own part in it.
Two performances stand out. Young Jerusha West gives an accomplished account of a ten-year-old girl awaiting her father in a red-light Amsterdam hotel and planning to walk into a trap when she returns home from which we ache to save her. And the star is, of course, Prunella Scales, who plays a battered wife, the Gertrude of the title, at once frail, innocent, bereft and murderous.
The overall effect is of a number of actors making a good fist of their audition speeches, but it falls short of a fulfilling evening’s entertainment.