Talking Heads

Talking Heads

A Chip In The Sugar, Bed Among the Lentils and Her Big Chance

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads must be the best-known example of a form that receives little attention from either the telly-watching or the theatre-going publics: the dramatic monologue. The reasons for their enduring popularity are perhaps twofold: there’s the nostalgic fug surrounding those stunningly cast BBC versions aired in 1988 and 1998, and then of course there’s the irresistible charm of Bennett’s cutting but affectionate observational writing, which somehow manages to feel effortless in its miniscule detail and subtlety.

While the rest of the company is out on tour this autumn, Dundee Rep Ensemble members Irene MacDougall, Emily Winter and Robert Paterson are trying something new: each will perform one monologue, and direct a fellow Ensemble member in one of the others, making for a fascinating triumvirate of separate but linked performances.

For MacDougall, the process has been one of discovery – both of the myriad detail locked into Bennett’s speeches, and, as a relatively inexperienced director, of the extra dimensions a good actress can bring to an understanding of a character. Directing Winter in ‘Her Big Chance’, the tale of an aspiring actress who mistakenly stumbles into a role in a soft-porn film, she has found it ‘a bit of a revelation’ for ‘a character to be so nice and actually very funny as well’. Her own character, Susan, the vicar’s wife (the fact that her name is always suffixed thus symptomatic of her predicament in the piece), is much more painfully self-aware but equally full of subtle contradiction: MacDougall describes her as ‘gently excoriating about herself’.

Speaking about the spectre of those award-winning televised versions, she is convincingly confident that a new stage version is just what we need to get to grips with these finely observed characters: ‘These people [are] known for being extraordinary actors, so [the performances] are kind of iconic in themselves, and it becomes as much about watching how does Maggie Smith or Patricia Routledge do this, and sometimes I think maybe we see how fantastic they are and we stop looking at the characters.’

The bleak and the humorous rub up against each other throughout Talking Heads, never allowing audiences to forget the loneliness at the heart of each story or drawing to a neat and theatrically satisfying conclusion. ‘I think they all have this dying fall,’ muses MacDougall. ‘There are moments of joy in them, there are moments that are very, very funny, and then you sort of get caught up short.’

Dundee Rep, Wed 22–Sat 25 Sep

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