Sally Phillips and Lily Bevan are both successful writers and actors in their own right. Bevan is a RADA graduate and Phillips is of course renowned for her roles in Miranda and Smack the Pony.
In Talking to Strangers, they are free to work to their own rules in a series of one-woman sketches featuring an eclectic collection of female characters in a variety of social situations.
The characters are just as niche and original as one would hope from these two performers and Bevan opens the show with a neurotic Yoga teacher character (Bevan herself is a part-time Yoga instructor) whose unique instructions and wild similes get ever more ridiculous as the sketch continues; “Down into child’s pose like a … young … adult.” Bevan has a relentless energy and absorbing stage presence. This naive character is likeable and harmless as she ends with a downward facing dog “like a stretching … cat.”
Phillips’ approach and performance qualities are more dependent on her flawless timing and audience participation which she reacts to effortlessly. Her first character is a confident and go-getting Swedish business woman attending an international conference. She takes enormous pleasure from highlighting what she thinks are great British failings (Brexit and men dominating business). She holds extended eye contact with audience members that hints of the psychotic tales she goes on to share with us all, while wildly gesticulating with a takeaway coffee cup, naturally.
Other highlights include Bevan’s European health/nutritionist character. “Men, they like your hair” she declares to us, “because it reminds them of spa-ghet-ti … so if you’re really serious about this, wash it.” She also keeps herself looking young by visiting a man called Pepi in Kentish Town who irons her face once a month. All this is delivered with the sternest of poker-faces, as she tells us we can’t have milk because it will make us fat so we should instead, look at pictures of cows in order to get our calcium fix.
There’s a pleasing level of diversity in the characters that Bevan and Phillips tackle, with Phillips going from sex counsellor to a tattooed jilted lover. One of her more successful characters was the sketch set on a train, where we meet an elderly traveller on the verge of retirement whose profession we learn is a “lion neurologist”. She spends the sketch justifying her pointless academic exploits and telling embellished tales of the Serengeti as she shares one of those (awful) muffins you get on trains with an audience member. Anyone who has been on long train journeys or flights with appreciate the absurdity of the conversation and the obligation the audience feel to listen and pretend to care.
Comedy and certainly sketches of this nature are purely subjective when it comes to preference. The weaker sketches that seemed to drag included Bevan’s countryside dweller who had lost her bird of prey which all felt a bit silly and pointless. Phillip’s sketch about the cancer supporters group who slowly passed away one by one after receiving get well messages from the singer Bette Midler went down well with the Soho Theatre audience but it could benefit from some editing. It wasn’t strong enough to fill the penultimate slot in the running order.
In a nice wrapping up, the evening ends with the return of Bevan as our Yoga instructor who asks us to stand and hold our hands apart before bringing them together in quick succession “like a pigeon flying against a window”, giving her a ready-made round of applause.
Review by Vikki Jane Vile
Comic monologues in which a range of characters find themselves engaging in the most un-British of activities: talking to a stranger.
Written and performed by Sally Phillips (BBC’sMiranda, Channel 4’s Smack the Pony) and Lily Bevan (BBC’s Dr Who, BBC Radio 4’s Rumpole of the Bailey).
Wed 6th July 2016
21 Dean St, London W1D 3NE
Running Time: 60 mins
Age Recommendation: 14+