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We Heart Alan Bennett

When NOBAd mentioned to a passing theatre director that Duns Players planned to stage a two-night show of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, he responsonded with the kind of pained teeth-sucking more associated with a plumber on the make. He followed this with an in-depth yet quaintly colloquial rhetoric on the subject, the gist being:

“Are they f***ing mad?”

Turns out that an amateur dramatic group merely considering taking on our favourite playwright, actor and literary national treasure is committing an act of desecration; guilty of blaspheming against all that is good and pure in the world of the bittersweet monologue.

The thing with Talking Heads is that it is so definitive. The first sextet of these poignantly comic television plays came out in the 1980s starring the likes of Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge and Thora Hird. This phenomenal acting talent, combined with Bennett’s finely nuanced scripts in which every word seems deliberately placed, leaves very little wriggle room for subsequent productions. And for amateur performers this can be especially problematic.

Duns Players could have tackled Talking Heads in two ways last week — either by imitating the original 1980s television plays, or reinterpreting the characters to avoid inevitable comparisons.

In the end, they did both.

Christine Sclater opened the evening at the Duns Volunteer Hall as Irene Ruddock in ‘A Lady of Letters’ — a lonely woman who spends her days writing to the authorities about what she sees as increasing social decay. After one accusatory letter too far, Irene is sent to prison where ironically for the first time in her life she feels free.

Initially and understandably — hello?  Alan Bennett? — Christine’s first night nerves caused some temporary breath control problems, but by the mid-section of her monologue she had relaxed, demonstrating lovely comic timing and understated acting.

While  Christine’s hair-setted performance bravely took the tone of a fond Patricia Routledge homage, Genny Dixon moved away from attempting Maggie Smith’s unsurpassable portrayal of stifling suppression in ‘A Bed Among the Lentils’. Instead, Genny gave Susan — the alcoholic vicar’s wife who has an affair with local grocer, Ramesh Ramesh III — palpable anger. This Susan spat and railed against a life not lived, before eventually finding peace (albeit, in typical Bennett fashion, a compromised one).

Handling the dialogue with ease and adept pacing, Genny confessed afterwards that she had drawn on her past experience as, yes, a vicar’s wife.

Imagine that. NOTBAd does, a lot. We like the idea of a past having a vicar’s wife, rather than a vicar’s wife having a past. We fantasize that when a christening party ran dry, Genny was the one to invite everyone back to the communion cupboard to freeload Lidl Tempranillo into the wee hours, while she paid a choir boy from the collection plate to mind the kid. We’re confident that she drew on this aspect of her past life to inform her characterisation. Strictly entre nous, she looks like she could handle a spray of gypsophila three sheets to the wind.  We are in awe.

John Schofield — one-time recipient of a F.A.R.T.† — played Graham in the final monologue of the evening, ‘A Chip in the Sugar’.

Graham lives at home looking after his elderly mother but domestic harmony is disturbed upon his mother meeting up with old flame Frank Turnbull, who goes on to propose marriage. Side-lined and increasingly jealous, Graham learns that Frank is actually married and triumphantly tells his mother, splitting them up, thus restoring the status quo.

The thing about John is that he’s a details man. The teacup he used on stage?  ‘A Gift from Scarborough’. That magazine he tucked under the chair? A real gay porn mag. Yes! Actual man flesh! In Duns! These little touches bedded in the character, enabling John not only to  enjoy himself, but possibly even bodybuilder Garth, 25, GSOH. Taking his time with the dialogue, John savoured the words like a humbug. Wonderful.

Peter Lerpiniere, the director and self-confessed Bennett fan, praises the cast for their commitment and admits that the cast largely directed themselves. In just five weeks, the cast — all working and leading busy lives — memorized their monologues, leaving an  autocue pleasingly redundant. Very impressive, considering most of us here at NOTBAd struggle to remember our children’s names. Or if we have any.

Duns Players has suffered in recent years from a lack of strong identity, no small part due to the majority of Players being heavily involved with the Duns & District Operatic Society. This has resulted in commitment issues, lack of focus and low morale, and there were questions being asked over the merit of having two community theatre groups serving the same audience in much the same way.

But NOTBAd senses a sea change. A gap appears to be opening between D&DAOS and Duns Players with regard to what they are able to offer an audience, and this difference is crucial if they are both to survive. While D&DAOS has cornered the market in community theatre in its truest sense, Duns Players is starting to realise that, actually, it’s okay wanting to improve on that; that sometimes showing off your best crockery can be a good thing.

Last week’s Talking Heads was exactly that, an exercise in showing-off; a chance to remind an audience that community theatre, when it’s done well, can engage and not just entertain.

But, hey, it’s Alan Bennett.  What’s not to love?

†Flyte Award for Realism in Theatre – a mythical award legendarily bestowed.

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