TALKING HEADS at The Alma, Bristol

Playing a character in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads must be somewhat of a double-edged sword for an actor: the scripts are magnificent and full of material to engage with. Yet at the same time the words are so clearly those of Bennett himself; so identifiable with his troubling yet comical view of the world that we might even have his voice resounding in our heads as we listen to that of the actor.  Originally made for television in 1988 and 1998, The 625 Company have taken three of the 12 monologues to present as a show. All three contain elements for which Bennett is well known such as death and Isolation.

First Soldiering On. After the death of her husband Muriel must cope with life on her own, a wayward son and a mentally ill daughter. She sits quietly on the sofa folding away the now redundant suits of her late husband. Mair Smith brings a calm strength to the part. Her voice is soft and yet firm; she is grey-haired and stoic: “I’m not a tragic woman… I’m not that type”, she protests. Surrounded by sympathy cards she recounts the details of the events from the few months following her husband’s death. Smith adds just the right amount of melancholy as the story unfolds and the dark secrets are gradually revealed. She delivers the words at a controlled pace giving us a real sense of Muriel’s character and allowing us to discover the subtle sub-texts of Bennett’s story for ourselves

Graham, played by Michael Davis, is the docile, middle-aged bachelor in A Chip in the Sugar. Brown trousers and a beige shirt, with a knitted tank-top and slippers; he still lives at home with his widowed mum. Graham does the house-work, he is meek and softly-spoken. Davis performs the dialogue a little too softly at times, although this does accentuate Graham’s feebleness. Graham is unknowing and vulnerable; so naturally he is perturbed when his mum gets together with an old flame.

In Her Big Chance we discover another slightly naive character: Lesley the actress. She’s had a few small parts and a walk-on in Crossroads. Vanessa Bishop plays Lesley; red hair, red clothes and slightly silly. She claims she is “professional to my fingertips” but we witness her inexperience and chuckle to ourselves quietly as we realise what kind of film production she has signed up for. Bishop perhaps doesn’t quite capture the underlying sense of desperation or the same feeling of pathos as the first two. But she manages to make us like her character, despite the absurd gullibility. She is the least believable but most fun character of the three.

As with all Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues we must admire the actors; alone on the stage for some 35 minutes with, quite frankly, quite a lot of words to remember; and without other actors to respond to. The 625 Company have made a good fist of presenting us with three entertaining pieces.  ★★★☆☆   Adrian Mantle   6th February 2018