'Untold Stories' review or 'How Bennett became so Bennett'

'Untold Stories', Alan Bennett
Duchess Theatre, Tuesday 2nd April 2013
Written for the Ham & High

As a child, Bennett longed for a little drama in his life. In fact, he craved drama almost as much as he longed to 'fit in' with his middle class chums. But Bennett's parents were as unique as they were docile. His childhood, spent above a shop in Leeds, was calm if not a little dotty. Is it any wonder Bennett went on to write such warm, distinctive plays?

These two autobiographical snapshots, transferring from the National Theatre, allow us to understand how Bennett became quite so, well, Bennett. In 'Hymn', Bennett touches upon his early musical experiences at Leeds Town Hall, where he would watch the Yorkshire Symphony play. Bennett bemusedly observes the musicians – these 'agents of the sublime' - travel home by bus, fag ends hanging from their mouths. It's the type of straight-talking perspective on life as an artist that has become a treasured Bennett trademark. 

'Cocktail Sticks' looks more closely at Bennett's parents, played with gentle panache by Jeff Rawle and Gabrielle Lloyd. When Bennett complains to his mother about his drama-free childhood, she yelps back, 'We took you to Morecombe, didn't we?!' That impossible breach between Bennett's high hopes and his parent's baffled bemusement – and the deep affection which bridged that gap – pulses quietly behind all of Bennett's best work.

Every aspect of Bennett – his hair, his accent and his intonation – seems so utterly Bennett. You'd have to be a fool to impersonate him. Yet, somehow, Alex Jennings pulls it off. One initially marvels at Jennings' performance, peppered with classic 'Bennett' features; the sad droop at the end his sentences and that wistful savouring of words. But the delivery is so brilliant, one soon forgets it's a performance at all.


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