Julian Eaves reviews Lucian Msamati in Playing Sandwichs by Alan Bennett as part of the Talking Heads on BBC iPlayer.
This is very much a high-end middle-class view of ‘parklife’: we are asked to see everything through the eyes of the narrator, played by Lucian Msamati, who fulfils every expectation made of a put-upon working-class underling. His performance is beautifully controlled, and the direction by Jeremy Herrin is as natural and plausible as it can be in the circumstances, although the avoidance of long- or establishing shots and the lack of action unaccompanied by the stream of Bennett-dialogue becomes wearying at times.
Working-class life comes across as something one would hardly wish to be a part of, which neatly chimes in with the author, Alan Bennett’s, life trajectory. The Eleven Plus, grammar school and Oxbridge paved the way out of the ranks of the masses and to the replenishment of British Establishment numbers (which had taken such a hit from the world wars), and the sound we hear in his work is of a transposed voice, one lifted away from its origins and moulded into something that sounds acceptable to the ‘high literary’ ambience of the SCR, BBC and other places where such voices tend to be heard. We get an almost taxonomic list of typical features of the lives of common people in this monologue for parkie Msamati. This is delivered in the arch, stylised manner of Bennett’s ‘lower class’ characters, who always sound totally plausible, but never quite ‘real’. It is with this writer always a case that the ‘lower orders’ are being glimpsed through the gently turned broadsheet pages of a Sunday newspaper, perhaps the ‘Culture’ section, perhaps the ‘Review’, but never – sadly – on their own terms.
Bennett’s technique, dramatically, is essentially one of cat-and-mouse: he feeds his victims – his audience – a few tit-bits of information in dialogue that might be heard in Albert Square or on ‘the Street’, but rarely anywhere in the real world. No matter. He then weaves into their light, almost trivial chit-chat, threads of a more sombre, complicated hue: unexplained disappearances, oddly placed inappropriate items, are left lying around in the reader’s imagination, suggesting possible problems. As soon as the audience starts to grasp at these ‘clues’, the author then rushes away from confronting them and wanders into another ‘digression’.
But he does have a more serious purpose in mind, it transpires. This lower class offender here is snapped up by the authorities and definitely does not get away with his crime. How very differently things might have gone, one wonders, if he had been a white, middle-class, perhaps only an ‘accessory’ to someone else’s wrongdoing, because such characters in Bennett-land tend, in my experience of his oeuvre, to escape the sticky fingers of justice. This is, of course, a message of deep reassurance to all those out there in audience-land who may or may not have had their own scrapes with naughtiness, and it may go some way – who knows? – to explain his attraction to Middle Eng-er-land, who sometimes seem to regard him as possessing almost messianic insight and power.
Meanwhile, pleasantly tinkly piano music strums gently in the background, laying a smog of bourgeois contentment over this benighted proletarian world. OK; if you like this sort of thing, it will easily occupy a few spare moments of your day. A qualified pleasure for some, but more of the same for those who want to see or hear this picture of the not-so-happy country they inhabit.