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A brief encounter with Muriel, Alan Bennett’s latest talking head

·2 min read

If Covid-secure theatre accidentally sparked a renaissance of the dramatic monologue, Alan Bennett confirmed he was still the master of the form when his Talking Heads series was revived by the BBC and the Bridge theatre in London last year.

The plays artfully distil entire lives and worlds into half an hour. But even Bennett is pushing at the constraints of the form with a new dramatic monologue lasting only three minutes. This is what we get with Muriel, a sketch specially written for a series of short digital dramas, Still Life: Untold Stories from Nottingham Now.

Commissioned by Nottingham Playhouse and directed by Adam Penford and Matthew Xia, the collection aims to tell tales of the city through “the eyes of residents who sometimes pass unnoticed”. What better remit for Bennett, whose cast of lonely characters in Talking Heads lead ordinary and often invisible lives.

There is a theatrical edge to Muriel as she rehearses a memorial speech for her husband in front of the mirror. She appears to be at home, applying her makeup, but the scene has a nostalgic whiff of the stage: she could easily be an actor rehearsing her lines in a dressing room. “We are gathered here this afternoon on Zoom,” she says and soon bursts into tears.

Muriel has the potential to become another of Bennett’s fascinating women, speaking aloud her dark thoughts and desires. Frances de la Tour, the playwright’s longtime collaborator who starred in The History Boys, The Habit of Art and People, is immediately compelling and there is also an offstage contribution from Adrian Scarborough. Muriel swiftly delivers a comic twist and it is all over before it has begun – making it feel like an advert of a Bennett play rather than the thing itself.

The rest of the series touches on issues including poverty and domestic violence. Writers (Amy Guyler, Olu Alakija, Nathan Ellis and Emteaz Hussain) have worked with the local community to bring these stories to the screen. It reflects the pandemic back at us, from Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrait of a woman running an empty cafe for those on the margins of society to Amelia Harding’s schoolgirl counting all the ways the pandemic has limited her life, and two delivery men (Conor Glean and Karl Haynes) facing a moral dilemma during a sandwich break.

The films have some nice moments but they are plotless and impressionistic and leave us wishing for something more. While the value of online dramas in keeping us connected to the artform should not be underestimated, the return of physical theatre later this month will no doubt bring back all that has felt missing this past year.

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