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Review: Talking Heads Live (Bridge Theatre)

Alan Bennett's monologues continue at the London venue this season

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Imelda Staunton in Lady of Letters
© Zac Nicholson

There's something remarkably generous about the Bridge Theatre's season of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues. Each short play may be a single person sitting on a fairly bare stage, but at their best they have a richness lacking in many more crowded plays. In their quiet way, they are showstoppers, offering some of Britain's best actors and directors a chance to show exactly what they can do.

These two evenings are grouped according to theme. In Playing Sandwiches & Lady of Letters we encounter two people who strive for respectability, but who both end up in prison. In Nights in the Gardens of Spain & Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet, the curtain of suburban normality slips to reveal sexual obsession and perversion. Only the last play could be described as comic (and even that is pretty dark) but all are shaped and flavoured by Bennett's ability to summon character and environment with a single, devastating line – as when a neighbour laments the fact she can't shoot her husband with "I'm pinning my hopes on his prostate". Or in Lady of Letters, Irene Ruddock's observation that "the one thing death always entails is a mass of correspondence."

That play is one of the best, a study in desperate loneliness that finds its outlet in interfering via mail in other people's lives. It is very funny but also profoundly compassionate, and Imelda Staunton's performance and Jonathan Kent's sympathetic direction paint its surprising trajectory with absolute assurance. Staunton is better on stage than on TV, pared back to pure truthfulness: the way she conveys so many emotions with incredible economy, and her final, whispered confession of joy are extraordinary.

So is Tamsin Greig's performance in Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Superbly directed by Marianne Elliott, she catches every mood as the timid Rosemary whose love for gardening forges a bond with her neighbour Fran, who has shot her husband after being sexually abused by him for years. Greig's empathy with her character, conveyed in little harried pauses, in delicate moments of silence as well as rushes of speech, is so dense and overwhelming that you long for her story to have a happy ending. Her sadness combined with resolve at the close is almost unbearable.

In contrast, Maxine Peake's buttoned-up spinster in Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet does find happiness of a sort. This is Bennett in full humorous flight, mining the tale of a woman and her kinky chiropodist for all its socially observed worth. Directed by Sarah Frankcom, the darker notes still chime: the idea that Miss Fozzard should lose her own life to care for her brother strikes just as strong a chord as the wonderful idea that the narrator hasn't tasted champagne but has seen it "at the conclusion of motor races".

In Playing Sandwiches, Lucian Msamati takes on Wilfred, the park keeper whose affable demeanour conceals a terrible secret: Bennett's intention here is clearly to show understanding – if not sympathy – for the man, and Msamati brilliantly conveys just the slightest unease as he begins to describe his budding friendship with a young mother and her seven-year-old daughter, allowing the tension in his own mind to peek through his playing. The denouement, when it comes, is chilling and brutal.

All the plays are enhanced by Bunny Christie's designs and Luke Halls' evocative videos, which manage – like the plays and performances themselves – to evoke and explain extreme human behaviour in restrained ways.