'The relationship between audience and actor can be extraordinary': The delicate art of the stage monologue

BBC Talking Heads by Alan Bennett PA handout photographer Zac Nicholson Only for use with Talking Heads promo: Zac Nicholson
BBC Talking Heads by Alan Bennett PA handout photographer Zac Nicholson Only for use with Talking Heads promo: Zac Nicholson

Call them monologues or call them one-person shows, plays featuring a single ­performer span the polar extremes of drama. To ­para­phrase a nursery rhyme, when they are good they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.

At its best the solo show can be the purest distillation of live narrative, a vehicle for a singular imagination or a great performance. Think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s original stage version of Fleabag, Samuel Beckett’s monologues, or Maggie Smith in Christopher Hampton’s A German Life. Greek drama began with a single actor; Charles Dickens acted out his books on reading tours; John Gielgud perfected a solo show of Shakespeare’s best bits.

But solo shows can also be indulgent and numbingly lacking in drama. The relative cheapness of staging them means fringe theatres and festivals are clotted with abysmal examples. Once-­famous actors often devise one to eke out their waning celebrity.

The worst are the maudlin tear-jerkers. Excruciatingly, I was once the only person in the 350-seat Arts Theatre watching a solo show about a woman who sleeps with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, then dies of cancer.

The tendency to mawkishness may spring from lesser writers believing, wrongly, that they can emulate the quiet pathos of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. These two sets of six monologues were originally broadcast by the BBC in 1988 and 1998, performed by the likes of Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Penelope Wilton and Bennett himself.

Though they’ve been done on stage many times since, their subtlety, intimacy and stealthy first-person revelations fit the TV frame perfectly. Now 10 of the originals have been remade by the BBC under the auspices of Bennett’s favoured stage director Nicholas Hytner, shot on existing EastEnders sets under conditions of strict social distancing. Performers include Martin Freeman, Lesley Manville and Kristin Scott Thomas. Two new scripts replace those originally performed by Hird, which required an actress over 70 and therefore considered at risk.

“They are total classics, and they confirm his [Bennett’s] centrality as the nation’s playwright,” says Josie Rourke. The former Donmar boss directed Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer in the new version of Her Big Chance, the tale of a naïve actress originally performed by Julie Walters. “They sit in people’s awareness not just because they were such big hits on the telly and have been on the curriculum for a long time, but because if you’re looking to do something as a drama student, or an actor on your own, they’re the things most ­people reach for.”

The new TV versions also chime with the times. “The characters are themselves socially distanced,” says Monica Dolan, who performed one of the new scripts, The Shrine, under Hytner’s direction. “All of these people have a loneliness to them or something they can’t talk about to anyone else. Instead of kicking the cat or ringing their best friend, they choose to talk to the camera, to us.”

Her character is a bereaved wife, and Dolan herself lost her 56-year-old brother to Covid-19 and pneumonia near the beginning of lockdown. She is still processing the grief and hopes she didn’t allow it to seep into her very powerful performance. Although this is her first Bennett play, she is no stranger to the monologue. Her own solo show, The B*easts, about the sexualisation of children, was a hit at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, then at the Bush, west London.

Dolan had long wanted to do “a story­telling show”, having been ­fascinated as a girl by the raconteur­ial spells cast by comedian Dave Allen and anecdotalist Peter Ustinov, and as an actress enjoyed the direct communication with an audience in a play that required a brief spasm of improvisation. “And from a practical point of view, if it was just me and a chair, it was likely I could get it on,” she says. The challenge, she found, was to make the story urgent and present, without another character to introduce information or conflict.

Everyone I speak to emphasises the special connection between performer and audience in a one-person show. Rourke says that monologues were hard to sell when she ran the Bush Theatre, because audiences were shy of the emotional investment. But when she com­missioned Simon Stephens to write the deeply affecting Sea Wall for Andrew Scott, as a stopgap when the theatre’s lighting rig collapsed, “people went nuts for it”.

“That direct relationship between audience and actor can be truly extra­ordinary at its greatest, you feel an energy being met with another energy,” says Jack Thorne, whose credits include the deeply disturbing monologue Stacy, as well as scripts for Skins and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. He used monologues to explore the darker corners of his imagination, he says: “There’s something in them that allows you to go to those dirty holes, to look inside your own screwed-up head.”

Thorne makes the connection to stand-up comedy: his wife Rachel Mason manages comedians and Frank Skinner is his brother-in-law. Comedian, actor and writer Richard Gadd thinks there’s no distinction between stand-up and dramatic soliloquy: “The sooner we start seeing it all as art, the better.”

Gadd’s acclaimed solo show Baby Reindeer, detailing his experience of being stalked, was due to open in the West End when Covid hit, and he thinks the “realness” of the story suited the intimacy of a monologue.

Poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz has written several solo shows, but has “a contested attraction to the form … on the one hand, it can embody the notions of a capitalistic obsession with self and reinforces the normalising of us only being interested in an individual story rather than a communal one”. But, she adds, solo shows in which one performer plays multiple characters can break free of individualism and root the story in political context. “One of the most exciting things in theatre for me has been the way writer-performer shows have completely re-energised the form, such as Burgerz by Travis Alabanza and I’m a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings,” she adds.

Indeed, the more I challenge my ambivalence to solo shows, the more examples of brilliance I’m reminded of: the prescient anger of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues; the technical dazzle of Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium; the antic weirdness of the late Ken Campbell’s trio of one-man shows; the mind-blowing imagination of Arinzé Kene’s Misty. And, of course, Talking Heads. When a monologue is good, it can be very, very good indeed.

Talking Heads begins on BBC One on June 23 at 9pm with a double bill, when all 12 films will be on iPlayer