A Chip in the Sugar

Myles Breen in 'A Chip in the Sugar' by Alan Bennett.

Myles Breen in 'A Chip in the Sugar' by Alan Bennett.

Human frailty and the wildly differing effects of personal change are to the forefront in Alan Bennett’s bittersweet monologue, A Chip in the Sugar.

Middle-aged narrator, Graham Whittaker (Myles Breen) lives with and cares for his elderly mother, Vera. This staid companionship is turned upside down when, after a chance encounter, Vera reunites with old flame, Frank Turnbull. His ever-increasing influence on Vera threatens the stability of Graham’s life and mental state. Breen presents the three main characters through a combination of reportage and mimicry so all are perceived through Graham’s eyes and brought to life in his voice.

Graham is reserved and prim but tries to give the appearance of being liberal and broadminded. He is patient, if not a little condescending, with his forgetful mother. They “think the world of” each other. Her new beau represents the things Graham fears about the world outside his closeted existence. Graham describes Frank as a brash man in garish dress, who expresses his right wing views loudly and undermines him at every opportunity.

The title is telling. Frank leads Vera and Graham to an unfamiliar café and Graham immediately derides the bright red decor as “common” and is aghast that a stray chip has been left in the table’s sugar bowl. He longs for order and the familiar in the face of unexpected change, which contrasts with his mother, who wants to break with routine and allows Frank to order her something she’s never had before. She continues to embrace the changes the relationship brings, while Graham struggles to cope.

When it is proven that Graham was right to be paranoid about Frank’s motives, Vera lashes out with her disappointment and his relief sharply at odds. The play ends with a resigned truce. There was a lasting impression left of the loneliness of this co-dependent relationship of both mother and son, carer and charge, and a sense that Graham is being slowly smothered by his comfort blanket.

Written in the late eighties, the monologue was the first episode of 'Talking Heads', a series written for BBC television. The stigma attached to mental health conditions is obvious and unfortunately, still echoes with some attitudes today. As Graham’s calm is crumbling, Vera tells him repeatedly to “take a tablet” and Frank dismisses such issues as a simple case of sufferers needing to “pull their socks up”.

Breen’s portrayal of Graham displayed immense sensitivity and humour. He imbued him with nervous energy and pompous self-regard but also with an endearing vulnerability. He excelled at the voices, expressions and mannerisms for the various characters as well as the witty one-liners and scenes of the script, which were many and dissolved the tension brought with more serious subject matters.

The playwright is from Leeds and the monologue was lauded for its distinct northern English setting and dialect on its debut. In Bottom Dog’s adaptation, Breen didn’t anglicise his accent or Vera’s but makes Turnbull speak with a pronounced northern English accent—highlighting his otherness to great effect.

The set consisted of just an old fashioned armchair, which lent itself both towards Graham’s sparse existence and ‘around the kitchen-table’ feel of the telling. This was further emphasised by the venue and its lunchtime slot. Theatre at the Savoy is Limerick’s answer to Bewley’s Café Theatre and the monthly events are bringing touring theatre back into a city centre venue, filling some of the void left by the closure of the Belltable Arts Centre earlier this year. A Chip in the Sugar was a fine example of the type of quality productions on offer here.

Rachael Finucane is a freelance journalist and arts blogger based in Limerick.

  • Review
  • Theatre

A Chip in the Sugar by Alan Bennett

Produced by Bottom Dog Theatre Company
In the Savoy, Limerick

Directed by Frances Healy

Performed by Myles Breen