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Talking Heads

Posted on 25th January 2010. 11 Comments

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Stevie Martin reviews, and is underwhelmed by, Fergus Leathem’s production of Talking Heads

“To perform such a play on a student stage is both highly ambitious and difficult…”

Both series’ of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads were broadcast in 1988 and 1998 respectively and were comprised of numerous monologues delivered by various characters ranging from the humorous to the downright tragic. To perform such a play on a student stage is both highly ambitious and difficult, requiring a great deal of in depth characterisation and directorial sensitivity which, unfortunately, this particular production lacked.

It’s not that the performances were dry, more that the actors appeared to have been given astonishingly little to work with which ultimately resulted in an underwhelming hour and forty minutes. To add insult to the injury, the set changes were often incredibly clunky, marred by bizarre decisions to, for example, swap one sofa with another almost identical version, or to have what looked like a window projected onto the floor.

Steffi Walker opened with Bed Among Lentils, the story of a nervous, alcoholic vicar’s wife who has an affair with a shop-owner and finds herself strangely unaffected by his decision to marry another woman. Whether Walker has the talent to carry such a subtle monologue is almost irrelevant, she had absolutely nothing to do throughout the entire forty minutes aside from smoke a cigarette, forcing her to pause at strange intervals and disrupt her own narrative flow. There is so much more that can be done with the piece and yet the only movement came from the frequent positioning of Walker from sitting at the desk, to leaning on the chair, to sitting in the sofa. The result was dry, uninspired, and almost unintelligible.  I should emphasise that this is not the sole fault of Walker but a clear example of an actress unaware, through a seemingly complete lack of directorial understanding, of the tale’s subtleties.

“…the audience were watching great potential as opposed to the finished product…”

The second monologue Chip in the Sugar was performed with more panache, although still tainted with rigidity. The way Tom Eklid described  conversations with his 72 year old mother provoked the biggest laughs of the evening, and the occasional switches from humour to poignancy worked well. A memory involving a therapy session was brilliantly told, but in terms of the remainder of the monologue, the audience were watching great potential as opposed to the finished product; Eklid clearly possesses a sound comic timing that was never realised.
Rebecca Mackinnon’s A Cream Cracker Under The Settee was the most successful of the evening, with Mackinnon portraying a kindly yet headstrong elderly lady rendered immobile and unable to ask for help. While Mackinnon dealt with the near impossible task of portraying an elderly citizen at the age of twenty one admirably, the scene was again blighted by some strange directorial choices. The footsteps, for one, appeared almost comically amateur, and Mackinnon appeared woefully under-directed. The poignant moments wherein she addressed the photograph of her deceased husband were wonderful, and her entire demeanour convincing, but her character appeared to contain no arc. She had nowhere to go from the opening lines, and the point wherein she refuses help from an inquisitive neighbour despite her infirm position, was confusing.

The play as a whole could have been infinitely lifted if given more sensitivity and if the characterisation had been given further consideration. Blighted by some directorial choices ranging from the dull to the frankly bizarre, the cast did their best but could not overcome these glaringly evident failings.

Stevie Martin


  • Steven Malkmus said:

    I think this review probably fair: opening night wasn’t great – seemingly everything that could go wrong did go wring – yet the reviewer seems to have the audacity to have completely overlooked the fact this was a) Wig & Mitre’s first production at Durham, and b) the fact it was performed within the first week of term, meaning that pre-production was completed in a matter of days, not the usual weeks. These are by no means excuses for the production’s short-comings, but sure these must be taken into consideration.
    Given the context of first week back after vacation, and the bravery of Wig & Mitre (a company newly set up by two freshers) to stage something such as ‘Talking Heads’, I feel it would be fair to that in reality, it was actually a very successful show, which delivered what was promised. The direction was economic, the pieces well and thoughtfully acted, the technical side of things very well managed by what must have been a competent team.
    Anyway, what would someone who smokes JP Menthol know?

  • Anon said:

    What an absolute bitch…

  • Anon said:

    This production, it has to be said and quite rightly has been, was terrible. Many other productions, such as Doubt, were produced in equally short amounts of time with far superior results. The fact that the company was set up by freshers is not an excuse for an abysmal production and begs the question as to why they were allowed to form a company in the first place. Should freshers with no experience be allowed to set up a theatre company for no apparent reason? Or should their theatrical talents be judged by their work in other productions before they are allowed to take the helm? I think the latter. The whole production seemed like an ego boost for the director rather than a genuine desire to put on a play which would speak to Durham audiences. DST should not put a show on unless it is extremely well thought through. I doubt this play was. There should be consistent levels of quality in DST productions at the risk of dwindling audiences. Unfortunately I doubt many of those who left half way through the performance will return any time soon.

  • Shola Ameobi said:

    this site appears to be the work of homosexuals

  • Anon said:

    Was the last comment but one by any chance written by a certain Mr. Leathem..?
    Personally, I would like to congratulate the reviewer on such an honest review. Far from being a ‘bitch’, her criticism was wholly constructive and fair to all involved. I could certainly think of much worse things to say about such a poorly thought-out and, frankly, lazy production.

  • Anon said:

    Last comment but two, sorry!

  • Ben Tover said:

    Thankfully for Wig and Mitre there is NO such thing as bad publicity.

    It appears that, just like putting on shows in the Assembly Rooms, the opportunity of writing these reviews is also being used for training purposes. People looking to hone their critical thinking sometimes take the concept of being a critic ad litteram.

    This is not a West End show. It is not even a fringe show. You might like to think of Durham shows as sometimes meeting that standard, but they don’t really, do they? No. If we hear tale of a mythical one which did, it was probably one in a thousand.
    And everything has to start somewhere. You may agree or disagree, depending of course on your own personal view; but to go so far as to claim that it is the responsibility of Durham student theatre to draw in audiences (as opposed to enable people to put on their own productions and learn useful skills), and what’s more, that if someone leaves during one play then theatre in Durham is doomed forever… that’s absurd enough to be straight out of Monty Python. In fact, it even goes beyond that into the land of silly. It’s straight out of Mr. Show.
    It obviously feels beautiful and dramatic to bemoan the injuries suffered by the Durham student audience, whose sensibilities cannot bear unworthy work tainting a stage, but there must come a time when we realise we’re taking life seriously and remember that even though university is a bubble, there still is a big wide world out there.

    Walker did a good job and she definitely has the necessary subtlety and she is suited to this character and also to many others. Tom Eklid packed a punch in his performance. Mackinnon brought a tear to the eye. The characters were very well cast, obviously the merit of the director. My only problem with choices was the smoking, if you can’t inhale, just don’t.

    Yes, the speeches were static. All three of them. And I don’t remember seeing a production of this text where they aren’t. And not including this one, I’ve seen three. Not to mention that those are the directions given within the text, and that even if they weren’t, the stillness is in the writing.
    And why indeed swap one sofa with another almost identical looking version? Complete mystery. Swapping sofas is the very definition of clunky and bizarre. Thanks to the given explanations, I now feel those labels are completely justified.

  • Shola Ameobi said:

    tl; dr

  • Ben Dover said:

    Then you obviously haven’t read the review

  • Ben Dover said:

    but you’re good at reading people. that’s nice.

    don’t worry about it, reading text may seem simple to most, but it may actually prove quite difficult.

  • Laura said:

    To get back to the point- I agree with this review. Infact I think it is actually a bit more generous than I would have been.

    The play was badly executed and I left halfway through so maybe it got a lot better after the interval but i doubt it