The latest two live instalments of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series, featuring actors who recently remade them for television, are miniature character studies in crime and punishment. Early references to imprisonment signpost the fate that awaits the flawed, fallen figures in these monologues, and though they never express any outright guilt, Bennett leaves us feeling an uneasy compassion for them both.
Neither of these dramas, originally presented on TV in 1988 and 1998, has lost its quiet shocks though both come laden with cultural anachronisms and outdated news stories about community policing and prison life. Wilfred, in Playing Sandwiches, is a seemingly unassuming park attendant who befriends “kiddies” and hints of a paedophilic past. The story reaches a critical point when a stranger leaves her daughter in his care. Irene, in Lady of Letters, is less amicable, shooting off letters of complaint to her local council, MP and the Queen, while her anger takes increasingly savage turns.
These scenarios cannot readily be imagined in today’s world – who writes letters these days and who leaves their children with strangers? But the former is more believable because, although Irene writes her letters on Basildon Bond, she might just as easily be today’s Twitter warrior. Lady of Letters has a stronger script that can be enjoyed for its sheer comedy value alongside the shocks and jolts, though Lucian Msamati delivers a fine performance as Wilfred in Playing Sandwiches.
Imelda Staunton manages to wrestle her character out of the almighty shadow of Patricia Routledge’s imperious 1988 performance. Directed by Jonathan Kent, her delivery on stage is softer and occasionally more playful than that in her recent TV adaptation. Glimmers of terrible self-realisation are conveyed in long, jaw-clenched silence and these nestle edgily next to the comedy. However many times diehard fans might have previously heard Irene’s put-downs and one-liners, they still make us laugh.
Playing Sandwiches has a more impenetrable character at its heart, with a script that is packed with plot and incident but holds back on insights into Wilfred’s inner life. Has he ever been to prison? He is asked early on and leaves the question dangling. Msamati has a disarming niceness but there is perhaps too much reliance on what is not said. Talking Heads features very few men and maybe as a series it is better at drawing out the vulnerabilities of its women.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, its opening scene is beautiful with falling leaves and a lush green backdrop of foliage that changes, in the final moments, to bricks and prison bars. But it feels too static in its staging, especially compared with the swirling autumnal leaves (and striking aerial shots) in the 1998 TV original, starring David Haig, and in the newly updated TV version.
It cranks up its power as it goes along though, and contains a couple of devastating moments: just before Wilfred abuses a seven-year-old girl, he displaces responsibility for his actions on to the child – “She knew what she was doing.” Later he speaks of his behaviour: “It’s the one bit of your life that feels right and it’s that bit that’s wrong.”
Prison life is liberation for Irene (“the first taste of freedom I’ve had for years”) but Wilfred dreams of more radical escape, ultimately from himself, to “a place with nobody there at all” before remarking that even then, the “kiddies would come”.
• At the Bridge theatre, London, until 31 October.