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The Theatreguide.London Review

Gertrude's Secret
New End Theatre       January 2007

This program by Benedick West is made up of eight independent and unrelated short monologues, each done by a different actor.

It has all the charms and limitations of the genre, the charms being the chance to watch performers create an instant reality and tell a complete story in less than ten minutes; the limitation lying in the fact that there really isn't much reality to create or story to tell.

Inevitably and unfairly, monologues like these are always measured against Alan Bennett's Talking Heads - unfairly because Bennett is not only a master of the form but also takes up to an hour to create his reality and develop his small ironies or character revelations.

West's pieces are barely more than blackout sketches - the whole evening, including a long interval, doesn't quite reach an hour and a half.

And so he has to settle for simple one-joke bits, like the malaprop-spewing charlady and the employer with a surprising complaint about her au pair, or force his ironies and plot twists so abruptly that they don't ring true.

A child's monologue appears to be about her weekend father's inability to connect with her, but then suddenly and all-too-briefly veers into the revelation that she's meeting an on-line buddy in the woods.

A lonely mother waits for a phone call from her daughter, but even before that pathos can sink in, a more macabre secret is revealed.

Given thirty or forty minutes Bennett, or even West, could have createdt ouching and chilling realities out of those last two premises. But at seven minutes or so, they not only don't have time to develop but are too obviously self-consciously clever literary tricks.

Just about the only monologue that does generate a momentary reality is the illiterate and unemployable dole collector delicately balanced between stark self-awareness and blind hope. There's not much news in that one, but for a few minutes you recognise, believe and feel something.

The cast of eight all work admirably but are all ultimately defeated by the limitations of the genre and the material.

Even that inestimable and deservedly beloved national treasure Prunella Scales can only wander through the lonely mother sketch as if unsure where she's going (and, on this particular night, unsure of her lines).

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Gertrude's Secret - New End Theatre 2007


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