Those trotting along to Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads expecting vibrant physicality or inventive staging will be deeply -“ no, chasmally -“ disappointed. Of course such expectations are idiotic: this show was all about the promise of great performances, which the two Mags delivered.
Act One saw Margaret Tyzack (pictured) in Soldiering On, playing a widow coping with the unexpected consequences of her husband’s passing. Poor Tyzack is the lesser-known Margaret playing the more tragic piece, but she extracts genuine pathos from a touching if somewhat over-written work.
Act Two began and the crowd leant forward for the Australian stage debut of Maggie Smith in Bed Among The Lentils. Lights up and Smith drawled, Geoffrey’s bad enough but I’m glad I wasn’t married to Jesus.
This was Maggie Smith gold. Is there a gay man alive that didn’t delight when Smith sniffed the Florentine air with xenophobic disgust in A Room With A View? Or when in Murder By Death Smith said, I love you Dickie. I couldn’t make love to you, that’d be sick. Or when in California Suite she berated her closeted gay husband with, You did everything but lick his artichoke.
Bed Among The Lentils told the tale of an alcoholic vicar’s wife and her affair with an Indian grocer, that in Smith’s droll power was subversive, moving and somehow very queer. Talking Heads is a walk in Gosford Park for Smith, having already played the role on television, for which it was originally written. Herein lies the problem.
Bennett originally wrote the monologues for television in 1988 and titled them Talking Heads to challenge the assumption that such presentations are intrinsically boring. The broadcasts were a success, but the decision in 1992 to transfer the monologues to the stage was perhaps too ambitious. (Reviewer Nicholas de Jongh wrote that the television monologues should know their place is ideally in the home, not on the stage.)
The problem was only exacerbated for this production by the expansive venue. In a dream (theatrical) world Tyzack and Smith would be ready for their theatrical close-ups at Darlinghurst’s Old Fitzroy Hotel. Until then buy a ticket up in the front rows, but whatever you do, don’t miss Maggie(s).
Talking Heads is playing at the Sydney Theatre until 18 April. Phone 9266 4800