Untold Stories, the new National Theatre production now showing at Covent Garden’s Duchess Theatre, is the latest in an ever growing line of the cultural powerhouse’s shows to transfer to the glittering lights north of the river. A move which, geographically, at least, seems appropriate given who said untold stories belong to. The much loved Yorkshire playwright, Alan Bennett. The evening is presented as a double bill of two previously un-staged memoirs. ‘Hymn’, otherwise known as Act One, is a thirty minute piece detailing Bennett’s attempts at musicality in adolescence, with the mixture of dialogue and classical pieces played by the four strong orchestra also neatly steering us the young Bennett’s relationship with his father, religion, and war. Act Two belongs to ‘Cocktail Sticks’, a more traditionally Bennett-ian, conversational piece, in which he journeys back through key points in his life, communicating with his now late parents along the way about their desires and regrets in each time.
Alex Jennings plays the man himself in both pieces and does so with, to use one of Bennett’s own words from this very production, absolute aplomb. If indeed one ever can play Alan Bennett with a word which is in itself a synonym for being confident, cool and composed. But anyway, whichever word you care to use to mean ‘bloomin’ good’, Jennings is it. Nicholas Hytner, Director of the National, seems to hit the nail on the head in the show’s trailer, saying as he does that Jennings plays Bennett better than Bennett himself. Down to every gesture and mannerism, he seems to become a living portrait of the man he is pretending to be, so much so that as an audience we rather forget that he is pretending to be him at all. I for one had to keep reminding myself that the man stood in front of me on the appropriately furnished stage was not actually Alan Bennett, and neither was said appropriately furnished stage Alan Bennett’s living room, so completely does he embody the playwright. Albeit with just a tinge of cheekiness.
Left to Right: Alex Jennings and Alan Bennett
A crucial aspect of Bennett’s work has always been his excruciatingly sharp use of language. His cunning mix of nail head accuracy and soft Yorkshire lilt creating really quite poetic images, which are kept all the more so by the fact that because of this, they always have one foot in reality. The violin players of ‘Hymn’ going home on the tram in their rain spattered raincoats being a particularly good example. I’m willing to bet a toasted teacake or two that this unique skill of his is one of the main reasons people still flock to see his work, and Jennings delivers every line to perfection. He seems to enjoy each and every syllable almost as if he’s eating a boiled sweet, savouring it and then delicately spitting it out into a handkerchief a few moments later. In itself, an appropriately Bennett-ian idea.
And how great the words those syllables make up are. For me, Bennett’s best work will always be ‘Talking Heads’. It’s the first of his work I ever saw, back in a Lancashire classroom tacked onto the school library (I think he’d like that). For others it would be the classic, ‘The History Boys’. However there are some fantastic theatrical moments in the production’s sublime second act, ‘Cocktail Sticks’ which I think in years to come may even begin to rival some of his best known pieces. This is especially true of the middle aged Alan searching through his late mother’s cupboards, surmising parts of her character and life with each discovery, an image which I think will stay with most audience members long after they’ve left the theatre.
However it is precisely this greatness of the moving, funny and cleverly written ‘Cocktail Sticks’ which lends itself to criticism of the show’s first act. For poignant and nicely structured though ‘Hymn’ is, it is too short to ever really begin- we can’t settle in to it as an audience as much as we should. The beauty of Bennett’s work is being able to climb into his sharp tongued dialogue like a blanket (presumably a slightly prickly one from a charity shop in Bradford) and forget about the world outside of the little word castle he makes for us. The extensive inclusion of music in ‘Hymn’, however, doesn’t really allow us to do this. Enjoyable as it is as a piece in itself, its showy- almost self-indulgence on the part of Nadia Fall’s direction, meant that it didn’t belong here especially well. It would have been happier as part of another compilation, or as a stand-alone feature, leaving ‘Cocktail Sticks’ to take to the stage solo, un-interrupted by an interval, in much the same vein as recent productions Constellations or Peter and Alice.
All forgiven and forgotten by Act Two as it is, however, this is a special night at the theatre for fans of dialogue, drama, well actually for fans of pretty much everything’s that is great and good about the art form. Gabrielle Lloyd and Jeff Rawle give strong performances as Bennett’s parents, with the tragic juxtaposition of Lloyd’s character’s social aspiring tendencies and later descent into dementia portrayed especially movingly. Bennett has always reminded me of T.S
Eliot, celebrating both the tedium and occasional beauty of everyday life and objects simultaneously, usually in the same sentence, and this production goes above and beyond achieving that. In fact, for a production culminating in two deaths, even touching upon the playwright’s own brush with cancer, ‘Hymn & Cocktail Sticks’ is actually teeming with life. And by life I mean the Woman’s Own, cake tins, kitchen tables and day trips to Morecambe.
The main reason ‘Cocktail Sticks’ succeeds where ‘Hymn’ does not, is that one is exactly what audiences expect from Alan Bennett, and one is not. If this production teaches us nothing else, it’s that whilst Alex Jennings may indeed very good at being Alan Bennett, the man himself is even better at it.
Brilliant, in fact.
And by that definition Untold Stories is pretty much Alan Bennett all over.