In the Octagon’s Bill Naughton Studio Theatre, three brand new dramatic monologues are currently running in tandem with (and in counterpoint to) Talking Heads in the main theatre. First Words comprises three prize-winning plays by writers who rejoice in not being Alan Bennett.
These pieces are performed on a jagged section of parquet floor in front of illuminated wall cabinets which contain significant items from each narrative. The simplicity of this (uncredited) stage design sharpens the focus on three excellent combinations of writing and performance. Whether by accident or design all three stories feature a mother with an addiction and a father who is largely or wholly absent…
Nobody Can Never Get Us Back
Written by Shauna Mackay
Directed by Ben Occhipinti
Starring Tupele Dorgu as Yolanda
The character of Yolanda bucks the prevailing trend of First Words by being that addicted mother. Her all-but-beaten problem with cough medicine is anything but the focus here: it’s one of the means by which Shauna Mackay lets us know that this woman’s life has not always been an easy or a happy one. The reasons why she has recently lapsed into gulping on the Benylin again have become obvious by the time she admits to it.
Yolanda is a brilliant creation made real by Tupele Dorgu in a performance full of tenderness and, at times, almost manic positivity. Here is a woman who barely acknowledges the sad and unfair start she had in life. Her early years in children’s homes and the fostering system aren’t lingered over, but the fact that she shares her home with two daughters and fifteen rescue dogs is telling. She’s determined to see the best in everything and everybody, even going to great lengths to justify her husband’s abandonment of her for a woman half his (and her own) age.
Her other defining characteristic is her love of finding and using new words. In less skilled hands this could feel gimmicky and contrived but here it’s just one layer in a beautifully realised, complex character. It’s clear quite early on that the audience has been cast in the role of a visiting police officer trying, with heroic patience, to obtain a statement from Yolanda about the events of a few nights ago. But the one word she can’t bring herself to say is the word for what happened in her bedroom that night.
More than either of the other plays, this one matches Alan Bennett’s way of managing to say what’s really going on via a surreptitious drip-feed of secondary information, couched in funny and believably offbeat anecdotes from a finely crafted and perfectly performed character.
Written by Charlotte Josephine
Directed by Elizabeth Newman
Starring Jessica Baglow as Amber
The longest of the plays (a full hour) focuses on Amber, sixteen and already on her fifth school this year. It becomes clear that this is due to her alcoholic mother’s expanding chaos rather than being any reflection on Amber’s behaviour or abilities.
A lively, expressive girl with a hunger for knowledge and love, Amber has a complicated relationship with blue. Blue is the colour missing from what she’ll come to realise is her synaesthetic palette. Blue is the colour of her mum’s poison of choice, as well as being the depressive feeling that sometimes overtakes Amber, provoking and enabling her eating disorders. Although she has an extensive knowledge of painters and art history which surprises even her, Amber knows she must hide it if she wants to fit in. And above all, this girl wants to fit in. She’s become the adult in her relationship at home yet she retains the naivety of a much younger child, particularly where love and sex are concerned. When her life takes a series of worrying turns, will there be anybody she can trust to rescue her from a riptide of Blue?
This is a gorgeous piece of writing; economical and brisk but full of depth and insight and tender wit. It revels in its own pace and stunning vocabulary: the imagery keeps on coming, fast and bright as butterflies but believable enough never to be showy. Sometimes Amber breaks into deft and glorious rapping but even when that’s not the case, her speech retains a rhythmic and lyrical vibrancy. Jessica Baglow takes full advantage, bringing to life perfectly a vulnerable, surprising character who stays in the memory for a long time. Although Amber’s story is a sad one, sadder than she realises, it ends on a note of real hope for a happier future with a full emotional palette.
Written by Ian Townsend
Directed by Ben Occhipinti
Starring Michael Peavoy as Leon
Leon, like Amber, is a teenager with a unique view of the world. He enjoys order, routine and Creme Eggs. Most of all he enjoys cheering up his mum although this is not an easy task. She’s been on a substance-based retreat from the real world for most of his life, though Leon is no closer to grasping this fact than he is to remembering that the woman he calls Auntie Sharon is actually a social worker rather than an aunt.
When Mum’s prolonged refusal to engage with reality threatens to have drastic consequences, Leon decides that only seeing her beloved Kate Bush in person will make things right again. What could be more straightforward?
Being Amazing is the slightest of the three plays, both in terms of running time and its apparent ambitions. This doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive or successful. In Leon, Ian Townsend has created an extremely loveable character whose trust and positivity are infectious, if potentially exhausting. You’d love to have him in your life but maybe for just a couple of hours at a time.
Michael Peavoy turns in another astonishing performance, giving Leon a warm and easygoing enthusiasm which appears natural, effortless. In fact it’s a sustained effort in which the actor’s whole physicality is altered. Leon has learned that life runs more smoothly when he keeps smiling and so Peavoy keeps smiling too, even when his body is behaving quite differently. It feels and expresses the awkward tensions that Leon doesn’t really comprehend.
Snatches of Kate Bush songs are threaded into the narrative, a conceit which works a lot better than it probably ought to. As with the other two monologues, the sense of closure here is emotional rather than strictly narrative. If it isn’t quite as clear where Leon’s story will go from here as it is with Amber’s or Yolanda’s, well that’s because his emotional life is a lot more compromised than theirs.
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Ben Occhipinti
One crucial difference between the characters in First Words and Talking Heads isn’t so much their age as their outlook. True, Yolanda might be twice the age of Amber and Leon but she feels and behaves like somebody much younger. Everyone in Talking Heads is firmly over forty. More importantly, they seem terrified by the future whereas the younger characters in the new plays tend to be willing to face whatever it thows at them. The contrast is fascinating.
The trio of Bennett’s celebrated monologues presented here are built around characters who cling to a past which has done them very few favours. In at least two cases, its done them actual harm but it still strikes them as more comforting than the future. Better the devil you know, perhaps. Graham in A Chip In The Sugar wants his dreary now to go on forever, having found a way to cope with things the way they are. He’s trapped in a co-dependent existence with his elderly mother, each of them emotionally manipulating the other and believing they have the upper hand. When a face from Mother’s past threatens the status quo, Graham’s world starts falling apart.
David Birrell has the thankless task of interpreting a character Bennett created for himself to play. The author is so firmly embedded in Graham that it’s almost impossible for any actor to make that role his own. Birrell is impressive in spite of this, bringing out a stunted, crushed version of the man Graham might have been and imbuing the character with a hurt monstrousness that’s all too easy to believe and understand. He excels at being Graham being Mother though: we almost see her on the stage. It’s a grim story for all of the humour involved. Nobody embodies stamped-out happiness and hope like Graham, and Birrell’s glint of triumph when the character succeeds in stamping out Mother’s hope of happiness makes for a chilling end to the piece.
As Irene in A Lady of Letters, Cathy Tyson plays a similarly thwarted figure. She’s a woman old before her time and once again, a mother seems to be the cause of this. But Irene’s mother is long dead and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in her life at all. The only friend she mentions is a fountain pen, and it’s Irene’s propensity for putting pen to paper in anger that leads to her downfall. These days she’d be online and would be called a troll.
In this, the most uplifting of the Octagon’s Bennett monologues, however, Irene’s downfall is her salvation. Imprisoned for sending poison pen letters to neighbours whose tragedy she mistakes for something else, Irene finds her life paradoxically unlocked. She discovers friendship, purpose and a constructive use for her writing skills at last. She also develops perspective and an awareness of the world beyond her own bitter concerns. Cathy Tyson plays Irene with an unexpectedly light touch which makes the character’s spite and repressed fury all the darker. Her absence of knowingness is extremely refreshing, particularly when she has to deliver the more obviously comic lines. This is a tragic story because physical prison is so much more liberating to Irene than the prison of her own upbringing and frustrations yet, like Blue, it finishes on a note of hope.
The same cannot be said of A Cream Cracker Under The Settee, which has the grimmest conclusion there is. Sue Wallace makes for a sprightly and cheerful Doris whose fate is sealed shortly before the play begins. The clumsy fall that has broken her leg would not be quite so grave were she not so stubborn and ungregarious. It’s never spelled out if the unwillingness to ‘mix’ that she and her late husband Wilfrid shared was always there or if it was a consequence of their only child’s stillbirth. The same could be true of her obsession with cleanliness.
What makes this play so heartbreaking is the speed with which we come to feel we know Doris in spite of these ongoing secrets. It’s an admirable piece of character sketching by Bennett and testament to the skills of Sue Wallace who makes her lively and loveable. In the mid-80s when Talking Heads was written, 75 seemed a much older age to be than it does now, after all. But the isolation and loneliness persist for so many elderly people like Doris. If anything raises eyebrows now it’s the fact that she has a cleaner paid for by Social Services.
Unlike Irene and Graham, Doris expresses no self-pity at all. She’s witty, she has all of her faculties and no truck with God. The fact that she’s denied Irene’s happy ending or even Graham’s twisted comfort is what bites so hard here. It’s savage. Fear of being put into a care home makes her call out that she’s fine when a passing copper shouts through her letterbox. She must know what the outcome will be. She must find it preferable to a life in Stafford House. That life would probably have been too ‘gregarious’ for her.
Liz Cooke has designed a simple stage set showing a wintry sky behind terraced rooftops. The interior spaces are all in muted colours. There’s a single bedroom for Graham, a table and chair for Irene and, of course, a settee for Doris. At first these all appear to run together, an impression reinforced whenever all three characters appear onstage at once. It’s the floor that makes all the difference. Everyone’s isolation is sustained by deep jagged cracks riven in the carpets and Lino. These occasionally flare with angry volcanic light, stranding Doris, Irene and Graham on tiny domestic islands.
This isolation is the other major difference between the two sets of characters. In Talking Heads the protagonists’ lives are lonely and empty. In First Words, they are surrounded by people (and dogs) every day. This is probably because the people in the new works are much younger. It’s certainly a large part of why their stories are ultimately less grim. The way in which these two sets of monologues complement and contrast is highly thought-provoking and enjoyable though, and brings the Octagon‘s Spring/Summer season to an extremely satisfying close.