Talking Heads review, Octagon Theatre


I think Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues probably split the audience into those that have fond memories of the original BBC series in 1988, and those that have possibly never even heard of them or were too young to remember. I fall very firmly into the first group and it’s interesting to think that we probably experienced the live version in a slightly different way. The original performances were certainly a very hard act to follow and, although it was difficult to put them totally out of the mind, the live actors certainly (as Louis Walsh might say) made the parts their own.

It is quite a different experience to watch a close-up of someone, via the intimacy of a camera close-up, than to see a single actor on stage who is able to make a connection with the whole audience, and hold their attention while they tell their story. All three actors, however, managed the feat with great skill.

For those who do not know what to expect, the evening consists of three characters who tell their stories to the audience via their internal thoughts. The audience is given plenty of leeway to ‘fill in the gaps’ of the stories, given from the single character’s point of view, and we are led skilfully on our journey by Bennett’s sublime storytelling, peppered with moments of great humour and pathos.


Firstly, David Birrell played the part of Graham in ‘A Chip in the Sugar’, in which a middle-aged man reflects on his comfortable existence with his mother and how everything changes with the arrival of her old flame, Mr Turnbull. This part was originally played by Bennett himself, but David Birrell excelled at capturing the somewhat naïve, at times bewildered, son, whose nose is being put out of joint.


Cathy Tyson followed, in ‘A Lady of Letters’, as the compulsive, letter-writing busybody Irene. Hers was a strong voice and the audience laughed at her opinionated rants, however her inevitable downfall actually leads to an unexpected, and welcome, epiphany.

The final performance was by Sue Wallace as Doris, in ‘A Cream Cracker under the Settee’. Doris is an elderly lady who chuntering about her home-help Zulema who, it seems, is in fact is her only contact with the outside world. Her isolation is complete when she hurts her leg and is unable to walk.


Bennett has a knack for capturing the quirky and eccentric characters who fall through the gaps, to whom we can all relate on some level. There is no artifice, these are average, down to earth people who might sit next to us on the bus. Although very different, they are all united by their inherent isolation from society, and their links are cleverly highlighted by the set design and lighting which, coupled with the melancholy and discordant brass soundtrack, lent the whole piece a very atmospheric and vintage feel.

Make no mistake, the monologues are ‘of their time’ and there are a few cultural references that are quite hard to hear in these more enlightened times, but the themes remain unchanged. Whether you are revisiting these monologues ‘in the flesh’, or are new to them, there is a great deal to laugh at and empathise with, as well as some great acting to admire. Book your tickets now, before it ends on Saturday 8th July.

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