By Alan Bennett
I must confess at the outset that I never saw any of the two series of Talking Heads on television, even though I heard plenty about them when they were first broadcast. So popular have they been that the books are now on the A-level syllabus in English secondary schools, and individual monologues turn up regularly on stages in Britain and the US.
I’m not sure whether this is the first appearance of any of them in Australia, but after this extensive tour (all states plus Canberra), I can envisage them appearing with the same regularity here with both professional and amateur companies. The Playhouse Theatre has a big stage, and initially I wondered how these two monologues “Her Big Chance” and “Miss Fozzard finds her Feet” would play in that space. Each has just a central minimal arrangement of furniture, and therefore the focus is unremittingly on that single spotlit area. Because of this you tend to build up that eerie single-vision sense of an aura surrounding the player, which can at times be disconcerting if you find that your mind is not as engaged as your sight, and I am not entirely convinced that they would normally be as successful on stage as they might have been on the small screen, lacking the close-ups and the different angles that the medium offers. Given all that, they are without doubt a wonderful opportunity in which top quality actors can shine.
And shine both Sigrid Thornton and Brenda Blethyn do, wringing every nuance, every laugh, and every irony out of the two monologues. “Her Big Chance” with Sigrid Thornton was first with just a couch in the spotlight. She plays Lesley, the small-time (and small part) actress (the term is used advisedly) sitting rather primly and uncomfortably in the middle, looking a little like a ghoulish Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab after a bad night, not quite knowing where she has woken up. From there she ranges through a few stock characters from sophisticate and vamp to eager librarian and vicar’s wife too anxious to please, all culled from her bible, the Personality Book. She’s good at collecting people even from Zimbabwe (pronounced carefully with a lingering long “a”) and listening intently with great interest to everything, and she is professional to her fingertips. She’s had a small part in the Roman Polanski Tess (and Tess’s shawl plays a big part in her memory of film), she’s appeared in an episode of Crossroads, and apart from that, the big time is as far away as when she started. Until she goes to a party where she’s offered a part in a video for the “overseas market”, West Germany no less.
Her audition, if it can be called that, consists of her trying to convince the makers of the video that she could make her part of Travis more interesting if there were a chess scene, or even a water-skiing scene, but all they want is for her to take her top off. After all, they just want to see her knockers. Acting is really just giving, she says rather plaintively. Before or after the night with Gunther the director? There’s also an animal handler called Kenneth in there somewhere. It’s rather a sad and desperate piece, because the line between naivety and self-justification is always thinly stretched, and we all know about the unpleasant aspects of the soft-porn industry. Thornton negotiates that line quite deftly, using her body to indicate her moments of attempting to inject a more “Emily Bronte” aspect into the character of Travis, and the acceptance that all they really want is yet more T&A. I am still not sure whether the hard, round coconuts of breasts under the tight red sweater were Lesley’s, Travis’s or indeed Sigrid’s.
Feet always make for laughs, and Brenda Blethyn certain milked them for all they were worth in Miss Fozzard finds her Feet. “I don’t like to think of your feet falling into the wrong hands,” says her retiring chiropodist, as he recommends her to a colleague Mr Dunderdale who greets her with “Allow me to shake hands with your feet”. So Miss Fozzard’s life continues to be regaled with the magic talk of verrucas and fungus between the toes, a glass of sweet sherry and the offer to “initiate you into the mystery of the metatarsal arch”.
Who could say no? For Miss Fozzard whose world has been limited by the soft furnishings department of Matthias Robinson’s and the chore of looking after her brother Bernard who had a stroke and only seems able to say the word “cow” when she is in the room, Mr Dunderdale’s seductive foot fetish is hard to resist. So she tries different shoes on for him, “The bronze bootees are a lovely ending to the legs,” he coos. From there it’s a very short step indeed to trampling on his back like a French peasant treading the grapes while he is lying on the floor (face down of course) while moaning, “Trample away, yes, yes, yes.” She lets herself out, as you might expect.
Meanwhile she has found a carer for Bernard, an Australian girl, that tart from Hobart, who makes him laugh and eventually steals all the money from his account, while Miss F is “monkeying around with her foot feller”. And monkey around she does, eventually getting to the point where she can mark time on Mr Dunderdale’s bottom for which he pays her now in a reversal of their previous arrangement. Free spirits both, as he assures her.
Blethyn is a natural for this sort of broad comedy, and as she changes shoes, no longer relaxing into slippers as she had done previously, she raises the laugh quotient to wonderful heights of absurdity. And all the time, having an occasional sip of tea, and smoothing down her perm and her cardigan, and rolling those wonderful brown button eyes.
Pity it’s not on for longer, but the tour still has Sydney, Adelaide and Newcastle to go.
Directed by Braham Murray.
Playing at QPAC Fri 9 Nov to Sun 11 Nov; Fri, Sat 8pm; Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm.
Duration : 1hr 54mins including 20-min interval