Review: "Talking Heads" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • Associate United Kingdom Theatre Critic

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues were first broadcast on television in 1988, and, like all of Bennett’s pieces of work have been over the years, were praised for their wit and sensitive poeticism that perfectly bottled the essence of the human spirit. Talking Heads has since gone on to enjoy a life of many revivals on the stage, harking back to the early format that Bennett’s formative works took: a single storyteller offering us a glimpse into their life. For its final production in the Courtyard Theatre before undergoing major refurbishment, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has revived the monologues, presenting them as two separate shows on the same days.

In keeping with the original format of the monologues in their published form, as a cohesive whole, I’m reviewing the two halves here. My main reason for this, however, is to assure readers that these monologues all have to be seen to fully appreciate the grandeur of Bennett’s labours. I saw Graham, Peggy and Muriel in the afternoon, and Susan, Irene and Doris in the evening on the same day, but you could see them on separate days if you wished. Whatever way you view them, you’re in for a real treat, and some of the strongest pieces of theatre the Playhouse has ever brought to one of its stages. 

Talking Heads follows the individual stories of the aforementioned characters, and in the two autonomous groupings, have stories thematically influenced by love, loss and religion. For instance, Graham (Chris Chilton) happily lives at home with his mother, but when a figure from her past comes and tries to whisk her away, the simple equilibrium of his life is thrown into disarray. Peggy (Flo Wilson) ends up in hospital with a mysterious illness and Muriel (Tina Gray) ends up having to deal with the aftermath of her wealthy husband’s death. Susan (Cate Hamer) grapples with her own sense of morality and ‘duty’ as the Vicar’s wife, Irene (Vanessa Rosenthal) constantly writes primarily admonishing letters to the corporate powers of the world, and Doris (Marlene Sidaway) is an elderly, isolated lady disillusioned with her cleaner from the council. 

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Director James Brining has, in a celebration of the Playhouse’s sense of collaboration, invited Amy Leach and John R. Wilkinson to direct the monologues with him. This adds a sense of vibrancy to the proceedings; each monologue has a subtle and slightly different feel to them, and you can almost feel the journey each of the excellent actors has gone on with their directors as they bring to life Bennett’s beautifully written work. 

Talking Heads presents a variety of opportunities - and challenges - to a director. While the monologues are different and standalone pieces, and mainly static, we need a sense of being taken from place to place to truly appreciate the scale of Bennett’s work. This is where some real magic unfolds in these two productions; sharing the same set, mainly a large revolving structure that houses the characters’ homes, the directorial vision seamlessly allows us into completely different worlds. These worlds are, however, inbound together by the same themes, and as a result, we feel compelled and engaged to enter the separate lives of these characters as they tackle the issues they face. It truly is a beautiful set design from Laura Ann Price, accompanied by Prema Mehta’s atmospheric lighting design that enhances the emotions and mood of each monologue, and it especially does this at moments where the overarching sense of wistfulness in each piece presents itself to beautiful effect.

Executing these moments of wistfulness are the stunning performances from the actors bringing Bennett’s scripts to life. Every one of the performers makes each monologue their own with artistic clarity, integrity and sensitivity, and excellently navigates the turbulent emotional landscape Bennett has woven into these pieces. They ensure, without a doubt, that this will be one of the Playhouse’s most memorable productions to date.

In true Playhouse style, the theatre has also been reaching out to the city’s numerous communities, and has performed these monologues at every one of its postcodes in local community centres, pubs and homes, to name a few. It’s all part of the Playhouse’s continuing mission to bring theatre to everyone, and Talking Heads is undoubtedly its exceptionally crafted love letter to its supportive audiences from across the city and beyond. 

 

Talking Heads is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 23rd June. For more information and tickets visit https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/talking-heads-graham-peggy-muriel/