Guest Review: Sally Phillips and Lily Bevan – Talking To Strangers, Soho Theatre

 A stalwart face in British comedy for over 20 years, Sally Phillips first ascended into immortality as one third of the on-screen talent for Smack The Pony, Channel 4’s landmark female-centric sketch show. Since then she has become a sort of watermark for quality in comedy – whether she’s turning up in the Bridget Jones movies or in HBO’s Veep, you know you’re in a safe pair of hands.

Such is the case with Talking To Strangers, which is co-written and performed with RADA alum Lily Bevan. A series of monologues in which characters talk to, you guessed it, strangers, Talking To Strangers originally aired on Radio 4 as a sketch series. As a stage show, it makes for a surreal hour packed with sharply observed character detail.

Performed as a series of monologues, alternating between Bevan and Phillips, the show opens somewhat ambivalently with a yoga instructor addressing a class with a monologue packed with the kind of tortured metaphors anyone who’s ever attended a yoga class will be familiar with. Subsequent characters fare much better, including a Swedish researcher very reminiscent of Phillips’ recurring turn on Veep as Finnish premiere Minna Häkkinen.

Throughout the evening it becomes clear Phillips and Bevan are chasing characters, not punchlines. At frequent points throughout the show, they deliberately shun more ‘classical’ rhythms of comedy and choose instead to offer more character introspection. That’s not to say the show isn’t funny – Phillips’ sterling deadpan wrings out laughs from unexpected places throughout the evening, and Bevan showcases a virtuoso talent for accents as both a reluctant Catherine of Aragon impersonator and a French wellness expert.

If the evening’s forays into satire never quite land – the wellness shtick is all stuff we’ve heard before, for example, the evening truly takes flight when Phillips and Bevan are most comfortable taking us to some strange places. In particular, the penultimate segment, in which a Yorkshire community support group are gradually marked for death by Bette Midler ringing them, is an absolute delight, and manages to be hilarious and moving all at once.

Talking To Strangers is ultimately a mixed bag, but one that’s hard not to recommend. While those more accustomed to the setup-punchline school of comedy may be frustrated, the show is still packed with humour, albeit in more unexpected places, and is underscored by Phillips and Bevan’s sharply observational gaze.

Chris Smyth

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