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Head for the theatre

Timothy Ramsden on stage versions of Alan Bennett's monologues. Alan Bennett's Talking Heads - only a lens away on television - are provoking various staging ideas aimed at intimacy. In Bolton, Lawrence Till has set his flexible Octagon auditorium in a semicircle, at Harrogate, Andrew Manley is considering a neutral background with his three characters onstage (though not speaking) simultaneously, while in North Staffordshire, New Victoria director Peter Cheeseman is building a cabaret style stage. Livespace director Andy Naylor, responsible for yet another production, has to tour but feels that l00-200 seat venues give sufficient intimacy.

But can theatre in the round cope with these one-headers? Apparently so; Cheeseman phoned Alan Ayckbourn, whose Scarborough theatre has just done them that way, to check.

Livespace have found the humour is not peculiarly northern; it works everywhere on their countrywide tour. But, north or south, would anyone really want these characters as neighbours?

Andrew Manley thinks not. "These people are quite hideously observed, like he's put a microscope on them and sees warts and blackheads. I don't think they're about a cosy, almost nostalgic view of the north." Manley sees Bennett repeatedly using his mother and her generation as a source, but the writer has of course moved away in time and place from that world. "Predominantly he writes about middle-aged people; even Graham comes across (in Chip) as middle-aged."

Larger than life amalgam caricatures then? Yet one attraction is the spareness in setting and writing. Both the spaces in which the characters live - their rooms - and the spaces in their heads are bleak. And funny. "Plays like these are always a problem in directing; if you're real you get the laughs."

Bolton's Talking Heads 2 is treated as a voyage from youth (Her Big Chance) to age (A Cream Cracker Under the Settee). The bad taste and neutrality of the rooms are offset by various uses on the set of a huge splash-of-colours backdrop - "a vivid, abstract view of the excitement of the world beyond". A sense of progress is given in Soldiering on as Muriel's possessions are packed further away, and by a move from room to hall in Cream Cracker. The plays are not, Lawrence Till says, tragedies but they are tragic. Indeed they show that the joyful and tragic are both parts of life. We recognise these people's desperate situations when they do not see them for themselves.

Unsurprisingly all four directors believe theatre can provide more intimacy than television - it is a medium that encourages absolute concentration on the character.

Andy Naylor points out that each monologue is populated with fascinating people - not just the speakers. Live performance lets the actor "place" these around the theatre so the audience can imagine them. Not such one-person pieces after all maybe.

Livespace tour February 1-29 (01760 755007) Harrogate Theatre February 15-March2 (01423 502116), New Victoria North Staffordshire between February 21 and April 27 (01782 717962) Talking Heads 2 Bolton Octagon to February 17 (01204 520661).

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