I don’t know of a funnier Englishman than Alan Bennett, or one who’s quite so quirkily, appealingly odd . He has us convulsed with laughter about peculiar things (and peculiar people). To see his very appealing Talking Heads at the Minetta Lane is to enter a world where disappointment is oxygen and small, eccentric lurches of hope a godsend.
On the one hand, he’s England’s Poet Laureate of disenchantment. On the other, he seems to have invented his own Theater of Social Embarrassment. Life embarrasses him, like a blushing vicar opening a garden fête. Over the years, Mr. Bennett himself has played more vicars than vicars play vicars. He began his professional career famously playing one in Beyond the Fringe , the 1960 landmark satire with Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. In “Take a Pew,” Mr. Bennett, the young, owlish Oxford graduate-who looks little different today-played a vicar wrestling with the meaning of it all in his sermon:
“You know, Life-Life, it’s rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. Some of us-some of us think we’ve found the key, don’t we? We roll back the lid of the sardine tin of Life, we reveal the sardines, the riches of Life, therein and we get them out, we enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little piece in the corner that you can’t get out. I wonder-I wonder, is there a little piece in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine.”
That could easily be one of his monologues in Talking Heads today. In that sense, his brilliant cameos have changed little-except, perhaps, in their characterization of aloneness. His sad sacks and eccentrics from the British lower-middle classes are pretenders to better things. But they are solo performances. His characters are most often alone-even when they live with other people. Particularly when they live with other people.
They gossip to us quite intimately like friendly neighbors over the garden wall. They are the kind of people, one imagines, that only Alan Bennett might know (or troubles to know). Where on earth does he find them? His memories of his own family life growing up in provincial Leeds in the North of England have stayed with him, along with his flat, uncompromised Yorkshire accent. (Where a cuppa tea is a coop -a tea). They also find him: A homeless tramp, Mary Shepherd, took up residence in the garden of his London home for 15 years until she died. He wrote a play about her for Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van .
But why, I once asked him, did he let her stay for 15 long, clearly inconvenient years? “I don’t really know,” he replied, looking a bit embarrassed. “I think I must have got used to her.”
He’s a droll, very English playwright. But not by eccentricity alone. Forty Years On , with John Gielgud, was about that typically English preoccupation, life in a cut-rate public school. (Or, boarding school as metaphor for England.) “What is truth and what is fable?” went one of its memorable lines. “Where is Ruth and where is Mabel?”
Then again, Kafka’s Dick was an intellectual farce about the nature of biography, and whether or not, in the cause of inquiring minds, we need to know the size of Kafka’s dick. Or of anybody else’s. Good old English bawdy never goes amiss with Mr. Bennett. Then there’s his verbal wit, his pleasure in language, farting jokes or deliberately bad jokes, his flair for the scatological and English schoolboy humor. Think of all the potty jokes in his The Madness of King George .
The Talking Heads monologues were originally written for television, but for once the transfer works well. There are two separate shows, directed by Michael Engler-six monologues in all-and the evening I caught could scarcely be better. Not all the actors, it’s said by American critics, have mastered the Northern accent. But as Mr. Bennett would say, “That’s foony.” Speaking as a proud Northern Englishman myself, the North country vowel sounds I heard were as warmly authentic as a nice coopa tea. True, Lynn Redgrave is English. But her own upbringing is far away from her perfect Yorkshire accent-as far away, we could argue, as the classless Americans in the cast.
In the curtain raiser, “Her Big Chance,” the excellent Valerie Mahaffey plays a sweet porn actress named Lesley, who hopes to be taken seriously as an artist in the way that the lower-middle classes forever aspire to refinement. Lesley hasn’t always done porn. She was the one on the back of the farm cart wearing a shawl in Roman Polanski’s Tess . “The shawl was original nineteenth-century embroidery. All hand done.”
One of her stories recalls a discussion with Terry, the assistant on the porn movie, about civilized behavior. “It’s the usual story, Lesley. Art comes in at the door, manners go out of the window,” Terry tells her, then asks, “Why is making a film like being a mushroom?” She asks, “Why, Terry?” “They keep you in the dark,” he replies, “and every now and again somebody comes and throws a bucket of shit over you.” She says, “That’s interesting. Only Terry, they don’t grow mushrooms like that now. It’s all industrialised.” “You sound like a cultured person,” says Terry. “What say we spend the evening exploring the delights of Lee-on-Solent?”
“His room’s nicer than mine,” Lesley adds. “His bathroom’s got a hair-dryer.”
“A Chip in the Sugar”-ludicrous, surreal title!-is about a middle-aged man, Graham, who’s still living with his widowed mother, in a relationship that’s like a bad, necessary marriage, when there’s what he calls “a spot of excitement.” Graham’s 72-year-old mother plans to marry her old flame Mr. Turnbull, a flashy gents’ outfitter. They met up again when Mum fell down during an outing to the war memorial.
“‘Remember you?’” Graham recalls her saying as she still lay there flat on the ground. “‘Of course. It’s Frank Turnbull. It must be fifty years.’ He said, ‘Fifty-two. Filey. 1934.’ She said, ‘Sea-Crest.’ He said, ‘No sand in the bedrooms.’ And they both cracked up laughing. Meanwhile, she’s still stuck on the pavement. I said, ‘Come along, Mother. We don’t want piles.’”
Daniel Davis rings more belly laughs out of the wan, emotionally troubled Graham than we’ve a right to expect from a character whose sad refrain, “I didn’t say anything,” is both a secret reproach and self-censored, resigned defeat.
Ms. Redgrave has the funniest monologue with her genteel tale of chiropody and fetishism, “Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet.” “What is important, Miss Fozzard, is what are we going to do about your feet?” announces her chiropodist, Mr. Suddaby, who’s emigrating to Scarborough. “You’ve been coming to me for so long I don’t like to think of your feet falling into the wrong hands.”
Miss Fozzard, who lives with her brother, Bernard, who’s had “a cerebral accident,” elevates the language with small snobberies. She hires an Australian nurse to look after Bernard. “Strong girl, very capable. And a qualified physiotherapist with a diploma in caring. It’s Australian caring but I suppose it’ll be the same as ours only minus the bugbear of hypothermia.”
There’s solace with the new chiropodist, Mr. Dunderdale, who tells Miss Fozzard between the verrucae and sweet sherry how he came to choose his profession. “‘It’s so I could kneel at the feet of thousands of women and my wife would never turn a hair.’ I said, ‘Oh. Is there a Mrs. Dunderdale?’ He said, ‘There was. She passed over.’”
Romance, Alan Bennett is telling us, blossoms decorously in unlikely places. “Next time, if you’re very good, I shall initiate you into the mysteries of the metatarsal arch,” Mr. Dunderdale confides after the first treatment. It certainly gives her something to think about on the bus.
Ms. Redgrave has a lot of fun with Miss Fozzard, and so do we. This fine actress glows anticipating what her memorable character might say next. “Have you ever had any champagne?” Mr. Dunderdale asks, wishing to toast the future. “No,” Miss Fozzard replies obligingly. “But I’ve seen it at the conclusion of motor races.”