Graham, Talking Heads and Tea - a chat with David Birrell

Graham, Talking Heads and Tea - a chat with David Birrell

It's a sunny afternoon in Bolton. David Birrell is here talking about Graham, the character he is playing, in Alan Bennett’s 'A Chip in the Sugar'.

David, who has just finished recording video about how he likes to drink his tea while sipping on a coffee, starts the conversation off by reminiscing about how he first encountered Talking Heads. During his time in drama school, he was aware of Bennett’s monologues as they had been aired on television in 1988 and were great material for budding actors.

“I read them a lot. Over and over again. So I was already very familiar with them before coming to rehearsals. When I started reading A Chip again ahead of rehearsals, it was with a different view of having to learn all the lines, but also to make sure I portrayed the ideas well.”

To do that, David tried to find out as much about Graham as he could. “I want to be able to relate to him as much as I can, seeing if I have any similarities as a starting point. 

"Once you find out that common ground, you can start talking in terms of that character.

“In rehearsals, I love improvisation, even with a script as lean and beautifully written as Talking Heads; it’s good to free things up, improvise about something specific. Let’s just see how Graham makes his bed, or let’s see how he relates to his GP, who he talks about a lot.”

The language, the action, and the situations seem so real. To the point where David thinks that, at times, they can feel like verbatim theatre. When I read this work I can hear my grandparents, my aunties and uncles, and people around me. It makes it more immediate. It’s emotional."

Some of the things that Graham’s ‘mam’ says sound just like my Nan. I can hear her voice speaking some of those lines.

And Talking Heads is funny. Some lines can evoke a knowing chuckle, others can make you fully belly-laugh. “Humour is a massive part of it”, David says “It isn’t bleak for the sake of being bleak, it’s just holding up a mirror. When you listen to them, it’s a real person talking”.

"There are Graham’s everywhere. It’s communicating that with the audience, and I want the audience to like him, to find him funny. Not to feel sorry or pity for him, but to see him as the extraordinary person he is, with all the different ideas and challenges he has in his life, and his past, and potentially his future.”

David, who has never performed a monologue like this before, has been working on seeing the audience as the second character in the piece. The audience don’t talk back, but they are listening. It’s almost as though Graham is confessing, telling a trusted friend quietly about his thoughts and feelings. They don’t judge, and hopefully they warm to Graham, empathise with him.”

In a Bennett-like flourish, we finish as we started - discussing hot beverages.
This is gorgeous tea by the way…coffee, I mean!

Talking Heads is playing at the Octagon Theatre until sat 8 July 2017.