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Dated, dark twists give Alan Bennett’s monologues an unappealing edge

More than 30 years on, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues still have the power to make us feel uncomfortable. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But it is worth reflecting on how Bennett achieves this effect.

Perhaps it is a coincidence but the storylines of three of the first four monologues to be broadcast highlight something less than appealing in the framing of Bennett’s series.

On Monday night, Lucian Msamati played a paedophile. Previously, Harriet Walter played a widow gradually realising that her husband had abused her daughter; and in one of two new instalments written for this revival, Sarah Lancashire played a mother attracted to her teenage son.

The dialogue is perfectly observed (and has dated less than you would imagine), and each character is brilliantly skewered by their verbal tics and mannerisms. Yet these elements jar when each episode’s big reveal – which the subjects sometimes let slip without admitting the truth to themselves – is something as awful as child abuse. It all feels a bit cheap.

Jodie Comer stars in one episode of Talking Heads (Photo: BBC)

There is a Carry On, “gotcha!” sense to it: who can work out the twist first? Did you spot the truth behind the gardener’s repeated references to “kiddies”? Given the characters avoid the crux of the issue so stubbornly, it sometimes seems that this device is used to shock, rather than to fully explore, the subject.

Bennett is no doubt saying something about English repression, but while this might have worked in the 1980s, in 2020 it feels a little underdeveloped. The fact that seemingly ordinary English people have dark secrets is not quite as shocking as it might once have been.

By contrast, Jodie Comer’s monologue – the second shown on Monday – about an actress unaware that her “big break” was as part of a soft-porn film, worked beautifully. D-lister Lesley thinks the world of herself, and views the world through that lens, even when the reality of a part doesn’t match up.

A single twitch of the Killing Eve actress’s face can be a punchline in itself, yet she stopped the performance from straying into satire by giving Lesley a knowing edge. A relief after the intensity of previous episodes.

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Written by Angle News

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