Talking Heads (West Yorkshire Playhouse)

A selection of Alan Bennett’s celebrated made-for-television monologues are re-imagined for the West Yorkshire Playhouse stage.

West Yorkshire Playhouse‘s Alan Bennett season might seem an obvious idea, but its planning and execution have been imaginative and stimulating. The made-for-television Talking Heads monologues, in different combinations, have made the transition to mainstream theatre most effectively, but they still communicate best in a close-up situation; they are the sort of plays you would welcome into your living room.

Vanessa Rosenthal as Irene in Alan Bennett's Lady of Letters
Vanessa Rosenthal as Irene in Alan Bennett's Lady of Letters

So director James Brining did just that. The three selected monologues have played seven community venues in Leeds, plus individually in three Leeds living rooms, with the homeowner inviting an audience of friends and neighbours. This brilliant concept apparently worked as well as it deserved, before Talking Heads settled into a run at the Playhouse’s Barber Studio.

Seated at the back of the surprisingly spacious Studio, I found the performances and production style a little small-scale; I imagine the impact was greater in more intimate venues. At a distance, however, it is possible to think seriously about Bennett’s presentation of such issues as loneliness, class and prejudice – always more uncompromising than his reputation suggests. This season has made it increasingly difficult to cast him in the rather cuddly role of much-loved entertainer and National Treasure.

In A Chip in the Sugar Graham (Christopher Chilton) is the middle-aged inadequate whose mutually dependent relationship with his ageing mother is threatened by the natty chap from the gents’ outfitters. Bed in the Lentils sees Susan (Cate Hamer) explore escape from her role as patronised and sidelined vicar’s wife via alcohol and an obliging Indian shopkeeper. In Lady of Letters Irene (Vanessa Rosenthal) commits all her thoughts, obsessions and suspicions to paper with ultimately disastrous results – or perhaps not!

All are more than amusingly straightforward monologues which reveal character by stages – though they do that, too! Quite complex and surprising story-lines emerge, endings are more often than not ironic and Bennett is a master of the unseen event, the one that happens in the black-out between scenes.

James Brining wisely keeps everything simple and all three actors get the necessary balance between the comic and serious: the sudden silencing of a gently chuckling audience is typical of the evening.

Talking Heads continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 5 July 2014.