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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess


  Gabrielle Lloyd, Jeff Rawle and Alex Jennings/ Ph: Ellie Kurtz

These days, English playwright Alan Bennett is regularly hailed as a national treasure. The irony of this surely isn’t lost on him, considering that he started out, in 1960, as a groundbreaking satirist in Beyond the Fringe, mocking the British establishment. Indeed, he remains more sharply witty  – and critical of some moral orthodoxies – than his cuddly image suggests.
That didn’t stop the woman sitting behind me from cooing repeatedly during the West End press night of Untold Stories. At points, I thought someone might have to restrain her from leaping up and hugging the actor Alex Jennings, who plays Bennett in both parts of this double bill of dramatized personal memoirs.
Of course, though, Bennett deserves fond admiration, and Jennings’ imitation of him is both charming and amusing, without ever being caricatured. Besides the trademark round spectacles and floppy blond bangs, Jennings has gotten the softly spoken, slightly sing-song Yorkshire accent to a tee. The physical mannerisms are fine-tuned, too: hands stuffed in his tweedy jacket pockets while he stands chattily reminiscing, or clasped over his chest once he’s nestled into a chintzy armchair beside a vintage radio.
A live string quartet shares the stage with him in the first memoir, entitled Hymns. Mildly experimental in form, this is really a monologue interlaced with a concert, as Bennett recollects his boyhood encounters with classical music and jazz – listening to the wireless, or going to watch post-war orchestras playing in Leeds. Most notably, he recalls trying to play the violin as his father did, only to fall disappointingly short.
This half-hour piece, as directed by Nadia Fall, risks sentimentalizing the material once or twice, especially when Jennings rounds off with a mournfully nostalgic gaze and the lighting changes to a pink sunset effect. Bennett’s writing, by comparison, avoids slipping towards schmaltz by staying understated or dry in tone.
Nonetheless, Untold Stories did see him moving, late in his career, towards more autobiographical openness. The second part of this production (which is, by the way, a National Theatre transfer) is a portrait from memory of his working-class parents that’s acutely moving as well as droll – and self-critical.
Directed by the National’s AD Nicholas HytnerCocktail Sticks sees Jennings’ Bennett cutting between remembered and imagined conversations, dancing on the borderline between fact and fiction. At first, he humorously complains that his childhood was too ordinary and happy to supply him with rich pickings as an author, yet he thoughtfully qualifies that notion at the end.
Jeff Rawle is unobtrusively excellent as Bennett's father: a salt-of-the-earth butcher by trade, uxoriously devoted yet basically antisocial. Meanwhile, Gabrielle Lloyd is comical then heartbreaking as the nattering and aspirational Mrs Bennett. While her son is becoming a bright spark amidst Oxbridge sophisticates and shooting to stardom, she is naively reading lifestyle magazines and dreaming of throwing cocktail parties. As time passes, Bennett sees her succumbing to clinical depression, then falling into widowed, mute senility.
All in all, this is beautifully performed, poignant and endearing.


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