The National Theatre fourth current West End transfer, 'Untold Stories' brings together two autobiographical Alan Bennett shorts that were staged at the NT last year.
Originally intended as a warm up act to 'People', Bennett's 'proper' new play, together 'Hymn' and 'Cocktail Sticks' are actually the stronger work, two playlets that beautifully demonstrates the great Yorkshire wit's ability to evoke the past warmly without rose-tinting his signature spectacles.
‘Hymn’ sees Alex Jennings’s elderly Bennett reflect on the role of music in his 1940s working-class childhood, while ‘Cocktail Sticks’ looks back on key moments in his relationship with his ageing parents, as Oxford University and then success as a playwright beckons.
Throughout, Jennings turns in far more than just a superb impersonation. As he tells anecdotes and has imaginary chats with his character’s dead mum and dad, he fleshes out Bennett’s trademark blazer, tie and crumpled jacket into an affectingly wry but mournful figure.
‘Hymn’, directed by Nadia Fall, is an elegiac half-hour in which a solitary Bennett, standing amid dustsheet-covered furniture, turns a youthful trip to Leeds Town Hall to hear an orchestra into a cheap-seat snapshot of workaday artistry caught between the trundle of tram rides.
From Bennett pausing to listen to the talented onstage quartet to recounting his awe at his dad’s violin, reverie blurs with regret as his scratchy attempts to play the instrument end on a note of parental disappointment that hangs in the air until his father’s death.
If ‘Hymn’ is about fathers and sons, Bennett’s mother takes centre stage in the Nicholas Hytner-directed ‘Cocktail Sticks’, which expands the cast to populate her world of anxious social aspiration, inflamed by Woman’s Own and the exoticism of avocado pears and salmon mousse.
Bennett, with his keen eye for everyday absurdity, mines plenty of humour from this scenario. But he also skewers his younger self’s snobbish shame at his parents’ attempts at self-betterment while he bangs on about his West End success.
‘Cocktail Sticks’ has bigger laughs than ‘Hymn’, but it’s no less poignant. Gabrielle Lloyd and Jeff Rawle are tenderly believable as Mam and Dad, and Lloyd conveys her character’s descent into dementia with unshowy power.
‘Untold Stories’ ends with an acknowledgement that life is often really only found when you write about it. This perfectly judged double-bill is a powerful testament to Bennett’s point. Tom Wicker