Alan Bennett never meant to tell his Untold Stories – written while he was undergoing treatment for cancer, they were originally intended to be published after his death. Purity of literary intention seldom lasts, though – think of Rossetti exhuming his poems from his wife’s grave – and this adaptation, transferring to the West End from the National Theatre, occupies the strange space of resurrecting the living.
Beautifully conceived, the adapted Hymn fills the spaces in Bennett’s memoir of music in his childhood with George Fenton’s specially composed score for the lovely, if jarringly uncostumed, onstage violin quartet. The frustrating audience tendency to laugh at anything both workaday and accented is tempered by the reinjection of beauty into a wryly mundane narrative, where the sublime is half glimpsed from behind an immense bass player, or in a father’s thwarted musical ambitions. Alex Jennings melts seamlessly into Alan, unmistakable without slipping into caricature, his nasal voice becoming a harmonic counterpoint that moves beyond the fringes, into the carefully phrased heart of the music.
A neat first half, scope limited by a slender text, is succeeded by a scattered, spilling out Cocktail Sticks, a panorama of sharp vignettes resisting neat containment. Offering a broad ensemble biography of Alan and his parents, the text explores what it is that set them apart, or made them feel apart, from other people – his mother’s obsession with finding normality in Ideal Home magazines and dreamt, never attempted cocktail parties mirrored in Alan’s own fixation with his own inadequate childhood, and its uninspiringly bleak post war absences.
The irony that motivates his narration is that however much he laments the dearth of suffering or incident in his upbringing, his parents are genuinely fascinating, rich source material; their pretensions and agonies painfully familiar, trapped with their son in a permanent, awkward adolescence. Gabrielle Lloyd’s brilliant, exasperating but ungrating Mam and Jeff Rawle’s long-suffering Dad are shrunken and vulnerable, even as adults to Alan’s child, making details that in another production could be uproariously funny – like Walter dredging up Lilian’s disaster with an avocado pear, served as an uncongenially greasy dessert – half-painful, too telling to be reduced to dialect punchlines.
What only sometimes comes across, though, in mice-like murmurings beneath the nasal roar of the authorial voice, is the quiet, private language of Bennett’s parents. As well as the Yorkshire dialect he mined – his mother exclaims, after a whimsical outbreak in a teashop, ‘I’ve given you some script!’ – their linguistic quirks are clues to repeating preoccupations; ‘splother’ gets a nod here, but their word for pretension or fuss points to something darker, to the fear of exposure or judgement that led them to marry on a weekday morning before work, so that no congregation need be present. With Bennett firmly at the centre, this fear is, ironically, indulged, their social agonies a weak reflection of Bennett’s own avoidance of the stir their presence at Oxford created, and awkward relationship with his own fame.
Another hole in the play, half eclipsed by Alan’s bright presence, is Bennett’s mother’s mental illness, which is muddied with her dementia here – her deterioration, with its lights and shades, distinct phases of grief, happiness and delusion, is too complex for a subplot. A subject in herself, it might have been better to leave off her final deterioration, in favour of shedding more light on her depression, and its parallels in the experiences of her sisters, the fascinating, eccentric aunts who get only the briefest of turns in the limelight here.
Powerful under the spotlight, Alan berates and interrogates his resuscitated parents – teasing them with his homosexual leanings, reminding his Dad that he’s dead when he disagrees – inventing them in the provincial, awkward, socially conservative image he needs them to keep to, to reflect himself against. If this convenient puppetry is sometimes uncomfortable, though, its also recognised in his relentless self-awareness; this is a conscious exercise in crafting a biography from material that’s ‘not the stuff of novels’ from the ‘two ancient glace cherries nestling in an egg cup’, each fossilising and sugaring a wider sphere of thwarted social ambitions.
The closest Alan’s mother ever got to her storied cocktail party was the profligate sherry, coffee and mini sausages handed round at her own funeral; ending with Bennett’s own cancer, there’s a baked meats feel to this show – but reading the collection will furnish forth good and plenty more.