Talking Heads In Your Living Room

Alan Bennett wrote his Talking Heads monologues to be delivered via TV into homes. Now they’re being performed live in living rooms

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“Couple came round last week, braying on the door,” says Alan Bennett’s septuagenarian Doris, memorably played on BBC television by the late Thora Hird. “They weren’t bona fide callers – they had a Bible. I didn’t go. Only they opened the letter-box and started shouting about Jesus. ‘Good news,’ they kept shouting. ‘Good news.’ They left the gate open, never mind good news.”

Marlene Sidaway is the latest actor to play Doris, who finds A Cream Cracker Under The Sofa in the Bennett work of that name, now transplanted from TV to theatre. For one week only, though, Cream Cracker and three of Bennett’s other Talking Heads monologues are going on tour around private houses in Leeds as not so much a curtain raiser as a curtain twitcher, a sneak preview of the production before it plays to larger audiences at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The monologues will mostly be performed in living rooms in 28 different Leeds postcode areas, after residents entered an online ballot to have them staged at their homes. West Yorkshire Playhouse says it is a way of saying thanks to the city’s residents before the theatre temporarily closes its doors this summer to begin a £14 million refurbishment.

Bennett’s 12 Talking Heads monologues were first televised in the 1980s and offer glimpses of the innermost thoughts of ordinary people. Poignant, and sometimes sad or uplifting, they showcase Bennett’s powers of observation and especially his extraordinary ear for dialogue.

Besides Cream Cracker, the other Talking Heads monologues touring Leeds in this unique production are Bed Among The Lentils and
A Lady of Letters – the TV versions featured respectively Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge – and A Chip In The Sugar, in which Bennett himself originally starred. Each of the four monologues will be performed every day at venues from Ilkley, Otley and Wetherby in the north through suburbs like Guiseley, Headingley and Chapeltown to Hunslet and Middleton in South Leeds, as well as the Armley area of West Leeds where Bennett grew up. To give wider audiences a chance to see the performances some will be at community centres.

“A huge number entered the ballot to stage these Talking Heads in their homes,” says associate director Amy Leach. “We sent teams round to check out their living room space in order to make the practical side of this event really work.

“We’re taking Talking Heads to flats, semis, terraced houses, detached houses, bungalows, you name it.”

Those who won the ballot will be able to invite family and friends, and Leach hopes that a “special magic” will flow from these stories about everyday people in Leeds being performed in the sorts of houses that Bennett envisaged when writing the monologues.

“There should be an extraordinary chemistry between audiences and performers, who have got nowhere to hide really in this situation because there is no special lighting or anything. It’ll just be them in their costumes sat in someone’s living room and telling a story.”

However, the modern reflex response to visual experiences of taking out a mobile phone to video or photograph these intimate performances will be discouraged, so don’t expect to find them on YouTube or Instagram.

“We will ask people not to distract the actors because doing a 40-50 minute monologue is quite an ask of their concentration,’ says Leach. “But I can imagine people will want to document the event and take pictures of them either side of the performance.”

Talking Heads In Your Living Room runs throughout Leeds from 4-9 June, and at the Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, on 14-23 June (

Main photo: Vanessa Rosenthal in A Lady of Letters (Antony Crolla)

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