UK TV review: Talking Heads (2020)
Ivan Radford | On 30, Jun 2020
Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads remain masterful pieces of writing several decades after they first premiered and this new series that remakes a bunch of them is a ringing testament to their staying power.
Two of the anthology are new offerings, although they don’t veer into topical subjects such as Brexit or even the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a shame, as it takes us away from the original plays’ potential state-of-the-nation commentary, but it only reinforces the playwright’s timeless insight into human nature.
Each one-act play follows a similar pattern, as monologues from people typically in their middle-age drift into ennui, bitterness and sadness, an escalating confession that moves through gradual, subtle twists and implied revelations. The uniformly impeccable cast, which is a veritable who’s-who of national treasures, includes everyone from the always-excellent Amadeus star Lucian Msamati to W1A regular Monica Dolan.
Particular standouts include Imelda Staunton in A Lady of Letters, which introduces us to Irene Ruddock, a woman who loves nothing more to dash off letters with her spiky fountain pen. Set in the 1980s, her scathing criticisms of everyone else’s flaws are at once outdated and familiar, with Staunton bringing a gently sinister presence to the lingering takes and quietly nasty stares.
There’s a similar feel to Martin Freeman in A Chip in the Sugar, in which the everyman takes on a withdrawn tone as he discusses his mother’s retired life and plans to make a fresh start. Lesley Manville is imperious as ever as the vicar’s wife in Bed Among the Lentils, which sees her discover the possibilities of life by meeting Mr Ramesh in a nearby shop. Sarah Lancashire is vulnerable but darkly disturbing in her story of a mother and son’s close bond, and Tamsin Greig is wonderful in Nights in the Garden of Spain, as the stiff-upper-lipped Rosemary recalls how she was accosted by a woman who shot her husband.
These are all masterclasses in navigating power dynamics, unreliable narrators and social observations, and direction from Nicholas Hytner, Jonathan Kent, Marianne Elliot and others echoes that shifting ground under our feet, from peeking across shadowy stairwells to weaving through an antiques shops’ shelves.
Together, the cast’s magnetic performances and subtly inventive staging finds a variety of humour, pathos and human drama that easily overcomes any lockdown restrictions, almost like they were filmed yesterday. A theatrical triumph in the best possible sense of the word. And, if you want to see them on stage, a collaboration with the Bridge Theatre means you can catch several double-bills of the plays live on stage until 31st October. (For more information, click here.)