ALAN Bennett’s brilliantly constructed Talking Heads started with A Woman of No Importance, written for the BBC in 1982 for performance by Patricia Routledge. Its success with audiences led to the commissioning of two series of Talking Heads, now recognised as masterpieces of the monologue form.
The Dorset-based ImpAct Theatre has a happy relationship with Bennett and his works, returning with three of the solo plays for June performances in Boscombe, Winton and Wimborne. Director Patricia Richardson revived A Chip in the Sugar, performed by Stewart Barlow and first seen on the 2014 ImpAct tour, and added the early A Woman of No Importance with Stephanie Fereday and Soldiering On, performed by Linda Denning.
The writer’s extraordinary skill is to paint lifetimes into a few words, so that the audience can picture all the characters described in vivid images. Each playlet was written with a specific actor in mind, and their success depends on the skill of the performer.
Lengthy and relatively static dramatic monologues present a big challenge for an amateur ensemble, but that has never deterred ImpAct, whose structure means it can call on the very best actors in the region.
These latest Talking Heads begin with the story of Peggy, a spinster clerical worker whose life has been only her job. Her stock phrase is “we laughed” and over almost an hour, she moves from her secure place in a specific table in the canteen to a lonely death in hospital, no longer able to bear the sound of laughter. Stephanie Fereday’s warm and plucky performance perfectly captured the essence of this ordinary woman.
Audiences had already seen Stewart Barlow’s performance in the role Alan Bennett wrote for himself, middle aged Graham living with his mother, in A Chip in the Sugar. If anything, Stewart Barlow’s performance has deepened in two years, adding nuances to the man who says “I didn’t say anything” as his mantra. I found myself believing I had watched his mother speaking, so powerful was the evocation.
Muriel in Soldiering On is the sort of woman we can all recognise doing good works in her small town or village community … salt of the earth and backbone of England are the phrases we use. Linda Denning’s performance captured the cheerful determination of a widow whose life is altered beyond recognition when he husband dies. Bennett’s brilliance is to open up for his audience, often in not more than one line, an entire back story that evidently surprises the character he creates. But Muriel is not one to dwell on a past she can’t alter. What she does is soldier on.
These extraordinary playlets were directed with subtle skill by Pat Richardson, and performed with perfect observation by the immensely talented trio, and each was enhanced by the music composed by Peter Fereday for the occasion.
Photography by Gary Hayton