Wednesday, 5 May 2004

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett, Maggie Smith & Margaret Tyzack, May 5, 2004

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett 
With Maggie Smith & Margaret Tyzack 
Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, May 4 to 16. 2004
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 5, 2004

To see, in the flesh, virtuoso actors, Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack, is to peek through the gates of theatre heaven.

They appear here in two monologues from Talking Heads, written for English television in 1987 by the irreverent and masterly Alan Bennett. Bennett writes incisively with piquancy and shrewdness, allowing these accomplished and distinguished artists to conjure comical and moving portraits of two ordinary women in crisis.

Both characters are painfully unaware of crucial details in their predicament. Both have a wry eye on the world around them. Each is seen in her home environment and each becomes increasingly uncomfortable for differing reasons. In both plays, vivid off-stage characters play significant roles in the characters' journeys.

Tyzack is warm and compelling in Soldiering On, a poignant monologue about Muriel, a stoic and initially wealthy widow.

The competent, socially active Muriel is dealing with the aftermath of her husband's death. Muriel relates the entire funeral coolly, as if it were a Country Women's Association afternoon tea. Bennett presents Muriel's escalating disaster in several scenes. All too quickly, her circumstances alter dramatically but Muriel 'soldiers on'.

She manages her mentally ill daughter with a tablet here and there and naively accepts her son ruining her financially. Finally, she is reduced to living in a bed-sit outside town.

Tyzack gives Muriel dignity, determination and warmth. Although she cannot bear to be seen as tragic, we feel for her the frustration and rage to which she refuses succumb.

Maggie Smith is delectable as Susan, a tipsy vicar's wife, in A Bed Among the Lentils. Bennett's wicked humour about churchgoers and Jesus is a gift for Smith. She plays Susan with a wry and laconic eye on the fawning women who flutter around her holier-than-thou husband, Geoffrey.

This is a consummate performance with impeccable comic timing. Smith perches on a kitchen chair, sipping sherry secretly from a mug all the long and arduous day.

She is incarcerated in a dusty, sexless marriage to a self-absorbed man and she is incapable of playing the role of vicar's wife. Her flower arranging is messy and her cooking forgettable. But her silent observations of her husband and his churchy followers, are acerbic and hilariously accurate. Susan delicately and drunkenly verbally vivisects the parishioners.

These actors breathe air into Bennett's skilful words. See this.

LOOK FOR: Maggie Smith's impeccable comic timing.

By Kate Herbert

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