REVIEW: A Chip In The Sugar, Talking Heads, iPlayer ✭✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Martin Freeman in A Chip in The Sugar part of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads now streaming on BBC iPlayer.

Martin Freeman Talking Heads A Chip In The Sandwiches
Martin Freeman in A Chip In The Sugar (Talking Heads)
A Chip in the Sugar
Talking Heads, BBC iPlayer
4 Stars
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These monologues are intriguing because I’m never quite sure what they’re meant to be about.  The subject matter is so wide-ranging and so convention-bound, so unsurprising, that the patter served up for delivery by the actors very often sounds like a shopping list of ‘standard features of unremarkable lives’.  How that is meant to be dramatically engaging is really beyond me.  Why should we care about the predictable, tired tropes of working-class, or lower-middle-class life?  But the author, Alan Bennett’s preferred methodology is to give us something easy-going and bland, at least to start with, to lure us into his world with a light chuckle over a smug, slightly complacent, knowing smile, but the ‘eyebrow-raising’ moment of the revelation of the grubby heart beating at the centre of each story.  If that is your preferred way of responding to theatre, then you’ll find plenty to delight you here.

In the hands of a very imaginative actor – like Martin Freeman in this one – Bennett’s different ‘voices’ can be given strongly demarcated personalities, making the conflicts of the drama more acute than perhaps they have been ‘written’ to be.  And so it proves here: Freeman understands microphone acting very well, and the impact that the voice makes through TV amplification and broadcast.  Here, he swoops and circles around, vocally, varying tempo, resonance, tone, making each phrase, each syllable pulse with individual life: he excels in switching between head, throat and chest voices, in the manner of a very accomplished radio actor who must achieve everything through subtle and sustained manipulation of the voice alone.  Director Jeremy Herrin doesn’t have to do much with the camera with an actor like this – he could do more, but chooses not to.  While the ‘ideas’ in the text romp from one topic to the next, flashing this way and that between incidents and opinions expressed on them, the voice remains trapped in its place.  As an existentialist ‘point’ being made – if one is so intended – this is something that unifies all the little plays, but the naturalism of the staging makes it come across an accidental rather than a deliberate artistic choice.  After all, this is considered the safest way to present drama in the UK.  But it is far from the only way of doing it, whatever the expectations of a given audience might be.

Given the location-based, literal realism of the staging, it is harder to see links between the separate narratives than it might be.  The laboriousness of the ‘introductions’ to each nasty picture of wrongdoing, therefore, becomes a bit of a formulaic plod.  Then there is the difficulty of knowing – or not knowing – to whom the confession, or narration, or account, or report, or… whatever, is being addressed.  Does it matter?  Well, yes, I think it does.  Compare it, if you would, with a long-running, expanded series like the ‘Inside No.9’ films.  Each one carefully chose and shaped itself to fit the characteristics of very beautifully differentiated forms, and this gives each story in the series an individual power to convince that stands independent of its fellows while preserving the sense of it being related to them.  It also saves a lot of time and allows more space for other things.  But Bennett seems content to construct each of these (admittedly very popular) vignettes in almost exactly the same packaging: that must please those who like their drama safe, standardised and unworrying.  If you’re one of those, you’ll like this, but if not…

If there is an underlying ‘message’ in these snapshots of the unexceptional it is that nothing much seems to have changed in society since Hollywood churned out ‘warning’ movies on topics rather like these, and churned them out by the hundred, indeed thousand, in the 1950s: the decade that seems to have formed the writer’s outlook and in which these people seem permanently stuck, like insects in ageing amber.  In Bennett-land, everyone who steps outside the strict parameters of respectable life can expect to be hauled the entire length of Social Disapproval Row.  Some are caught and punished, others evade censure, but the nice, safe boundaries of ‘normal’ suburban life will always be restored by the end, as they are here.  This is perhaps what makes this series so attractive to Bennett’s audiences, possibly: the sense of social restoration.  There isn’t much else by way of insight or vision to be enjoyed here, still less any explanation as to why we seem stuck in a world that vanished half a century ago and more.  As the country hurtles towards the utter unknown of Brexit, perhaps people imagine that such ‘nostalgia’ will help.  It won’t, but that isn’t going to deter anyone who has nothing else to rely on.

Other Talking Heads Reviews
Read our review for An Ordinary Woman
Read our review for The Shrine
Read our review for Soldiering On
Read our review for Her Big Chance
Read our review for The Outside Dog
Read our review for Bed Among The Lentils
Read our review for The Hand Of God
Read our review for Playing Sandwiches

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