A new work by Alan Bennett features in Still Life, a medley of five ‘untold stories’ from Nottingham Playhouse. The dramas were filmed during lockdown. Before the Bennett première, there’s a monologue by a wittering granny complaining about the price of cereal in a deserted food bank. Then, a banality-crammed slice of jabber between two van drivers eating lunch on a flight of stairs. This is followed by a ten-minute soliloquy from a precocious schoolgirl whose insights include, ‘my books are very heavy’ and ‘England is not part of Scotland’. A fourth cascade of tosh is parroted by a dim cab driver who trundles around the city bantering aimlessly with an eminently forgettable passenger. All these characters seem to share a common mental affliction: they have nothing to say but they can’t stop saying it.
Finally, the Alan Bennett show begins. Frances de La Tour stars as a widow, Muriel, who sits at home rehearsing the speech she intends to make at her husband’s funeral. He may, or may not, have died of Covid. After two minutes, Muriel receives surprising news and stops speaking. And that’s the end. A huge disappointment. And a bit naughty of Nottingham Playhouse to use Alan Bennett’s name to draw the punters into a colossal waste of time and energy.
A young musician, Toby Thompson, has created an hour-long fairy tale for children called I Wish I Was a Mountain. It’s a mixture of poetry, jazz piano and recorded music, and he uses an attractive, flexible set which he builds and dismantles during the show. His work is profound but accessible to youngsters and his theme is the agony of human desire. Our wishes spring from deficiencies but as soon as one wish is satisfied a new one replaces it. Is there a solution?
His tale centres on a violinist who has no ambitions at all and is perfectly content with his present condition. The violinist visits a magical fair where everyone is granted their heart’s desire but, having no wishes, he simply plays his violin and merges with the melody. When the music finishes, he ceases to exist. An amazing idea. Most kids would love Thompson’s warm, relaxed, buzzy presence on stage. A few might urge him to reach the point of the story a little more briskly
There is a comic play from 2017 on Soho Theatre’s website by a female performer in her thirties. Shades of Fleabag, perhaps. Good Girl, written and performed by Naomi Sheldon, is set in Sheffield where ten-year-old GG discusses sex with her schoolfriends. It’s a subject about which they’ve heard plenty but know nothing. Their conversations are touchingly hilarious and tinged with weird but realistic details. The girls experience strange sensations when looking at pictures of Patrick Swayze. ‘A sort of tingling, followed by a heaviness.’ Aged 12, they strip naked and inspect each others genitals, trying to work out ‘how it fits in’. By 14, they’ve discovered orgasms. Or at least some of them have. ‘Who here has had an orgasm?’ asks Laura, the leader of the group. GG is mortified. ‘I have a coughing fit. I’ve inhaled a skip.’ As soon as she masters the technique she tells her friends how fast she can reach climax. They counter with even more impressive accounts of their efficiency. The result is ‘a vaginal arms race’.
GG loves physical contact with her girlfriends. ‘I pull Zoe close and inhale her shampoo.’ Her feelings for Laura become so powerful that she bites her arm during a hugging game. Is she becoming a lesbian or is it just a phase? Next day at school she receives a note from Laura terminating their friendship. ‘You are so intense,’ writes Laura. But, adds GG, ‘there is a love heart over the “i”.’
GG goes to university and visits a hair salon for the first time. But she realises that she doesn’t know how to instruct the stylist. ‘Just do what you’d do if you had my face,’ she says. The show is crammed with little gems like this. But it’s not just some cute girly diary. GG has a streak of wildness and violence in her. She attacks boys physically at school and she fantasises about fighting a group of builders who ogle her on a bus. She lives according to the motto coined by Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice): ‘I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m going to damn well do it.’ In her twenties, she replies to an advert seeking ‘girls for a masked ball’. She receives £200 to have sex with a stranger at a party. Her feelings are a blend of ‘horror and joy’. The horror is triggered by her realisation that she likes being paid for sex. This is a wonderful portrait by a fantastic new voice. Clever, funny, fearless and indomitable. That name again: Naomi Sheldon.
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