Small Voices

Written by Alan Bennett

Wednesday 29th March to Saturday 1st April 1995

Directed by Eileen Norris and Jacquie Penrose

If you enjoyed Habeas Corpus in July'94 these three short plays are another treat for Alan Bennett fans. The subject matter may be sombre (difficult old age, terminal illness, lonely retirement), but it is beautifully handled with Bennett's usual combination of compassion and wicked humour.

AuthorAlan Bennett

Alan Bennett (b1934)

Bennett was born in Armley in Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire. He graduated with a first-class degree in history at Oxford where he performed comedy with a number of eventually successful actors in the Oxford Revue. He remained at the university for several years, where he researched and taught Medieval History. In 1960, Bennett appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. Bennett's first stage play, Forty Years On directed by Patrick Garland was produced in 1968. Many television, stage and radio plays followed, along with screenplays, short stories, novellas, a large body of non-fictional prose and broadcasting, and many appearances as an actor.

Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden, or meek and overlooked. Life has brought them to an impasse, or else passed them by altogether. In many cases they have met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and a failure to connect with others. Bennett is both unsparing and compassionate in laying bare his characters' frailties. This can be seen in his television plays for LWT in the late 1970s and the BBC in the early 1980s, and in the 1987 Talking Heads series of monologues for television which were later performed at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1992. This was a sextet of poignantly comic pieces, each of which depicted several stages in the character's decline from an initial state of denial or ignorance of their predicament, through a slow realisation of the hopelessness of their situation, and progressing to a bleak or ambiguous conclusion. A second set of six Talking Heads pieces followed a decade later.

In his 2005 prose collection 'Untold Stories' Bennett wrote candidly and movingly of the mental illness that afflicted his mother and other family members. Much of his work draws on his Leeds background, and his stage play 'The Lady in the Van' was based on his experiences with a tramp called Miss Shepherd who lived on his driveway in several dilapidated vans for over fifteen years. In 1994 Bennett adapted his popular and much-praised 1991 play The Madness of George III for the cinema which received four Academy Award nominations. His critically-acclaimed The History Boys won three Laurence Olivier Awards in February 2005. Bennett himself received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre.

Bennett was made an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford in 1987. He was also awarded a D.Litt by the University of Leeds in 1990 and a hon PhD from Kingston in 1996. However in 1998 he refused an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, in protest at its accepting funding for a named chair in honour of press baron Rupert Murdoch. He also declined a CBE in 1988 and a knighthood in 1996. He earned Honorary Membership of The Coterie in the 2007 membership list. In 2008 Bennett donated his entire archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and books to the Bodleian Library. It was a gesture of thanks repaying a debt he felt he owed to the UK's social welfare system that had given him educational opportunities which his humble family background would otherwise never have afforded.

PlayA Visit From Miss Protheroe

This play was first seen as a BBC2 'Play of the Week', in 1978 with Patricia Routledge as Miss Protheroe. After a lifetime of work and achievement, of which he is justly proud, Mr Dodsworth, now a widower, has retired to the apparently safe contentment of retirement, when he receives a visit from a former colleague. Miss Protheroe is paying his a visit to inform him of the computerisation of the firm. This is an early play of Alan Bennett's, but it reveals all his mastery of wit and perception of human vulnerability.

PlayA Woman of No Importance

First show on BBC TV in 1982, this play has retrospectively become part of the 'Talking Heads' group of plays, for which Bennett is so well known. Peggy Schofield, clerical worker and self-described linchpin of her office, finds that when her strict regime is disrupted, her world crumbles around her. Her health deteriorates and she is rapidly spirited away to hospital, where she reconstructs her office routine, appropriating doctors, other hospital staff and patients as replacements for her co-workers. It is soon revealed, through hints that she has lost her job and her co-workers haven't bothered to visit, that she is not as popular and significant as she assumed.

PlayA Chip in The Sugar

This play was written in 1987 for television, as part of Bennett's first 'Talking Heads' series for the BBC. Mild, middle-aged Graham Whittaker (who we learn is a repressed homosexual with a history of mild mental health problems) finds life becoming complicated as his mother, with whom he still lives, reunites with an old flame named Frank Turnbull. Graham becomes increasingly jealous when Mr Turnbull takes an ever-growing hold on Mam, especially when Frank proposes marriage simultaneously suggesting Graham moves out of the house to a hostel. But Mr Turnbull is hiding a secret, and when Graham finds out he triumphantly confronts his mother with the information, restoring the status quo and his comfortable life but destroying her hopes of happiness in the process.

The Bench Production

Small Voices poster image

These one-act plays, were staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.

A Visit From Miss Protheroe

Miss ProtheroeJanet Simpson
Mr DodsworthTony Doye
DirectorEileen Norris

A Woman of No Importance

Margaret SchofieldRosemary Sawyer
Director Jacquie Penrose

A Chip in The Sugar

Graham WhittakerDamon Wakelin
Director Jacquie Penrose


Stage Manager Gemma Harding
Lighting Steve Wilkins
Sound Amanda Calver
Hair by Joy Anderson

Programme Notes

Small Voices is one of Bench's occasional 'fringe' events - a production over and above our regular five. The fact that we are able to mount extra shows reflects the fact that the membership is growing and that there is increased energy to go with it.