Paul T Davies reviews Sarah Lancashire in An Ordinary Woman, part of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series.
Talking Heads: An Ordinary Woman.
Starring Sarah Lancashire
Streaming now on iPlayer.
When people tell me that they love Alan Bennett because he is “so funny”, I wonder if they watch the same Mr. Bennett as I do. Indeed, he is the master of a turn of phrase and an expression that makes you laugh out loud, but that laughter can also be snatched away by shock or melancholy before the end of the line. It’s in his masterpiece, Talking Heads, that the relationship between comedy and pain is more blurred, loneliness being a universal presence in the lives of the ordinary, yet extraordinary, misfits and matrons that speak directly to us. Ten of the original monologues have been re-recorded with new performers, but the two originally performed by Thora Hird have not, as they require an actress over 70 and it was deemed too risky, even under strict social distancing conditions, to re-record. However, in their place are two brand new Talking Heads, the first to be shown on BBC1 being An Ordinary Woman, performed by Sarah Lancashire. As this is a new work, there may be spoilers in this review if you haven’t watched it yet on iPlayer.
All the classic Bennett elements are there, an ordinary home, a Vicar, pink wafers, clean laundry, and dark secrets that spill out. Also present are classic red herrings, as Gwen talks about her 15-year-old son, we know immediately they are very close, close enough for him to show her a spot on his penis that he is worried about, but references to her losing weight make us wonder whether she is ill, not him, or are other clues hinting that he may have an inappropriate relationship with someone? Close, because what unfolds is a very taboo subject, Gwen is in love with her son Michael. (Bad, complicated, forbidden sex being another feature of Bennett’s work.) It’s a subject rarely approached, and Bennett bravely goes there, her confession of her feelings leading her to a hospital bed, breaking down when Michael spends a night making love to his girlfriend. Lancashire is excellent, her face proclaiming her ordinariness and then smudging with her feelings that she has to repress deeper and deeper. The superb lighting and set design take us from bright pastels to dimly lit bedroom, to even darker hospital ward. When we return to pastel, everything has changed. What hasn’t changed is her almost silent, obviously unloved, husband, perhaps the source of her loneliness and projected passion.
Nicholas Hytner, Bennett’s muse, directs with an assurance that brings out the best in every aspect. It’s a bleak, bold piece of writing and is matched by an excellent performance, whatever device you watch this on you will feel you are hearing a confession of the deepest feelings. Perhaps she repeats a little too much that she is an ordinary woman, perhaps there is one too many Bennett cliché in the text, but it’s great to have the Master of the confessional understatement back.