April 3, 2013 5:19 pm

Untold Stories, Duchess Theatre, London – review

This double bill of short plays by Alan Bennett explores the writer’s past – and the nature and meaning of memory
Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in 'Untold Stories'©Ellie Kurtz

Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in 'Untold Stories'

In essence, this delicate double bill of short plays (which shares material with his book Untold Stories ) by Alan Bennett is a trip down memory lane. But few writers undertake such journeys as well as Bennett. Played superbly by Alex Jennings, who achieves an uncanny vocal and visual likeness to Bennett, the bespectacled author wanders the stage, summoning recollections of his childhood. As he does so, he reflects not only on what memories mean but on how they are formed and the way they shift. Above all, this brace of recollections, first seen at the National Theatre, is sharply candid about writing and the writer’s need to plunder memories. The irony here is that while the younger Bennett regrets the humdrum nature of his Yorkshire childhood, the older man finds depths of meaning in ordinariness. It’s funny, tender and immensely poignant.

In Hymn, the first sliver of the evening, Bennett mulls over the significance of music in his childhood and adolescence. His butcher father was a keen amateur violinist, and Bennett’s wry recollections of his luckless efforts to enthuse his family mingle with the hymns that peppered school life in the 1940s. Written by Bennett with the composer George Fenton, the piece incorporates a versatile onstage string quartet, who slip effortlessly between genres and even evoke the 10-year-old Alan’s own discordant attempts at violin. Skilfully the piece, directed by Nadia Fall, interweaves words, music and image to create the fabric of memory.

In Cocktail Sticks, the more substantial piece, Bennett again explores the traffic of thought between his childhood and adulthood, as he considers class, education and the quirks of his loving but shy parents. His mother is the focus here, a chirpy soul whose aspirations to hold cocktail parties and coffee mornings are hopelessly thwarted by the couple’s aversion to alcohol, coffee and company. Gabrielle Lloyd plays her with birdlike brightness, but also suggests the dark despair of her depression and slide towards dementia. There’s a lovely performance too from Jeff Rawle as Bennett’s bluff, kindly father.

Bennett seizes tiny details that speak volumes and Nicholas Hytner’s production deftly shifts with the author’s mood, as he flinches over his own embarrassment at his parents’ social awkwardness. The older Bennett slips into scenes from the past, chatting with his long dead parents, commenting on his own callow behaviour, and so this seamless synthesis of past and present poignantly depicts the act of remembering in motion.


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