15 October 2020, The Tablet

Bennett’s take two

Bennett’s take two

Imelda Staunton in A Lady of Letters
Photo: Zac Nicholson


Talking Heads
Bridge Theatre, London

Some may think the main reason for transferring Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, recently seen on BBC1, to London’s Bridge Theatre is that, at the moment, any theatre is symbolically better than none. But that view is spectacularly disproved by a moment that contains one of the greatest pieces of stage acting I’ve seen.

In “A Lady Of Letters”, Imelda Staunton plays Irene Ruddock, a lonely woman (she has never had a partner) living alone, who approximates contact by obsessive busybody correspondence with authorities – crematorium bosses get a stinger about a breach of funeral etiquette, the council receives updates on the state of paving stones, and the local paper’s letters page is used to “initiate a correspondence about the length of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hair”. She lays down her laws with a fountain pen while sitting beside a window, in order keep an eye on the behaviour of neighbours.

Then, late on, Miss Ruddock realises one of her missives catastrophically misunderstood events, in a way that destroys her sense of purpose and personality. First, the resting expression of pursed-lipped certainty that Staunton has given the character freezes, before the face melts into terrified realisation, the previously glinting eyes suddenly hollowing into horror, as Miss Ruddock seems to collapse externally and internally. Already a slight woman, Staunton is somehow further shrunken by half.

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