With Untold Stories, Alan Bennett has mastered mixing the profoundly personal with the utterly universal.
This poignant pair of autobiographical pieces lay bare moments of Bennett’s own life exposing his own foibles, hang-ups and short comings – with a certain amount of artistic licence, which the playwright acknowledges – but in doing so reflects incidents, emotions, regrets we all experience.
Am I just describing the idea of theatre? Maybe, but if so Bennett has hit the theatrical sweet spot with, to use his own terminology, aplomb.
The two short pieces, originally staged at the National Theatre with little fanfare as accompaniments to Bennett’s last full length creation People, look back on The History Boys playwrights’ life with a potent blend of warmth, sadness and regret. As gentle as a caring grandparent in atmosphere, they disguise a core leaning to mournfulness.
Hymn finds Alex Jennings as Bennett weaving childhood memories and musings on music and his generation through a lilting score written by George Fenton and performed by an onstage string quartet.
Bennett’s perceived inability to live up to his father’s standards is illuminated through the tale of turbulent violin lessons and returns again in the longer second piece, Cocktail Sticks, which explores more fully his relationship with his parents, Jennings both narrating and slipping into re-enacted scenes and conversations with Bennett’s memories made flesh.
We see a young man who feels he will never make his father proud but who is simultaneously embarrassed about his family and his heritage, whose Oxford education and subsequent fame only isolates him from a family already isolated from the rest of society. Were it not for the warmth to be found from an average family wanting the best for their son, it would be a chilly picture.
Instead it positively glows, putting the house’s two-bar radiator to shame. Jeff Rawle is a classic father who knows one way of life and feels no need to change his ways. Gabrielle Lloyd is a mother you just want to hug, hands waving in eagerness as she reads about the next new fashion that she longs to experience but will always be out of her reach, and desperate to be some small part of her son’s new life. It breaks the heart to see age take its toll.
Jennings wears Bennett’s character like a favourite old dressing gown, comfortable and safe, without ever straying into caricature. The recognisable Yorkshire twang is there, the set of the mouth, a little stoop. In Jennings’ hands we see a man happy to be on stage, happy to share the most gorgeous language and phrases – you could feast on the luxuriant description of Bennett’s father’s violin – but not at ease centre stage, hands fidgeting between jacket pockets and jacket edges, searching for anything to occupy them. It reflects that child-like nervousness we all feel from time to time, as the pieces, so intimately personal to Bennett, reflect so many of our emotions.