Alan Bennett is the most English of English playwrights. Despite a steady output of quietly brilliant scripts and plays, he was for many years the least-known member of the original 1960s Beyond the Fringe group, which included Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. In the early '90s, Bennett gained widespread attention with his play, The Madness of King George. This was followed by another West End hit, The Lady in the Van (brought to life by the matchless Maggie Smith), in which Bennett explored the impact on his daily existence made by Miss Shepherd, the difficult, homeless eccentric who -- with his passive permission -- lived for a couple of decades in a succession of broken-down vehicles at the end of his driveway.
Bennett's work exists in a repressed, lower-middle-class world of seaside holidays, cups of tea, antimacassars and seen-better-days furniture. His people -- sad, Eleanor Rigby types -- are obsessed with matters of class, propriety and hygiene; they're lonely and self-absorbed, affected only obliquely and without understanding by the social currents swirling around them.
Englishman Richard Pegg, of Everyman Theatre Company, has chosen two monologues from Bennett's collection Talking Heads and given them a pitch-perfect production. "A Chip in the Sugar" and "A Lady of Letters" are quietly nerve-racking pieces that easily could have been tarted up or sentimentalized; Pegg avoids these pitfalls.
In the first piece, Graham Whittaker, a middle-aged man, discusses his life with his 72-year-old mother, whose health and memory are failing. To Graham's chagrin, she has started going on outings with a man of her own generation -- and quite the wrong kind of man. Graham is a sandal-wearing Guardian reader; his mother's beau is a businessman who takes her to visit shopping centers rather than historic churches, drinks coffee instead of tea and attributes all of England's problems to "the blacks." But when she's with him, Graham's mother is happier and more alert. Her senility recedes. "She remembers with him," Graham observes sadly.
Bennett's writing is deft, strong and very funny, accessible yet ringing deep emotional chimes and asking probing questions about language and the words ordinary people find to describe their lives. He has a masterful way with the rhythms of everyday British speech. "What about your bowels?" Graham asks his mother as she plans a trip. "They were unpredictable at Morecambe." And later, when she's lost the new boyfriend and is settling back into her cozy, deadening life with him, Graham quotes her as saying contentedly, "We like old buildings, don't we, you and me?"
This version of "A Chip in the Sugar" represents a close-to-perfect marriage of actor and material. In his sandals and thick gray socks, Chris Tabb makes an acceptable Englishman. He tells this story affectingly, fully evoking -- with small changes in pitch and rhythm -- both Graham's hapless mother and her beau, Frank. There's a dustiness about his performance, a hedging, an embarrassed looking away, that fits exactly.
The protagonist of "A Lady of Letters" is so lonely that she spends her life shooting off missives to everyone she feels has slighted her and to any tradesperson whose devotion to duty she has found lacking. She moves about her home, obsessively straightening and spying on her unwary neighbors -- who, to her distress, don't even put a cloth on the table for tea. She's even more distressed when their skinny, bruised little girl seems to disappear. Though she possesses almost no self-awareness, the theme of children and childlessness resonates through Miss Ruddock's monologue. Ironically, when her blind complaints finally get her into trouble with the law and she's liberated into imprisonment, she shows us the powerful need to take care of others that lies beneath her endless, self-righteous fussing.
It took me a little longer to warm up to Ann Rickhoff's performance in "A Lady of Letters" than to Tabb's in "Chip." At the beginning, she seemed more a type than a living, breathing person. As an actress, Rickhoff is very direct, making eye contact with the audience, given to an open emotionality that I think an Englishwoman of this class would avoid. She speaks with a rather beautiful precision and clarity, dropping silences into place around her words -- lovely to hear, but perhaps wrong for the role. But ultimately, Rickhoff makes the part her own and fills it wonderfully.
Director Pegg can take a great deal of credit for the success of Talking Heads. As always, the production values at the Annex Theatre are impeccable, and they reveal tremendous attention to detail: the brown leaves drifted in piles by the bus-stop bench, the moments of birdsong, the hazy yellow-gray, late-afternoon light that shines through Irene Ruddock's window. In all, a small and glowing gem of an evening.
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