Review – Untold Stories, Duchess Theatre

Thursday 18 April 2013

untoldstories2013180There were uncomfortable shards of recognition at Alan Bennett‘s autobiographical Untold Stories.

Phil discovered that the contents of his kitchen cupboard are not dissimilar to those of Bennett’s parents: the long-forgotten ground white pepper, the glacé cherries (though not sitting in an egg cup), the container of cocktail sticks, and the stubborn dried up dribbles of food that need chipping at to remove, all lurking with other long-past-their-sell-by-date items way back behind more pressingly urgent comestibles.

And Phil’s mother is from Yorkshire too. Not that he’s suggesting his mother’s kitchen cupboards are anything other than immaculate. At last, here’s a show that gives you something to take away with you; that it’s time to consider a spring clean.*

The parallels in Cocktail Sticks, the second of this double bill of recollections, were sometimes a little too close to home and not just in the kitchen department.

Though if the Whingers have ever been touched by a trip to the cinema it wasn’t in the way Bennett was on a trip to see Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk.

If there’s a degree of ruthlessness to Bennett he seems aware of it. He moans “Why did I have no childhood?” and that, unlike Philip Larkin, his parents didn’t do enough to “f*** him up”, thus not giving him enough material for his writing. But they’ve certainly provided plenty here; at least he seems to recognise his once slightly snobbish disdain towards them.

Bennett occasionally deconstructs his own writing style by pointing out occasional fabrications. Though where truth and exaggeration lies becomes irrelevant as ultimately he presents a portrait of a loving marriage which ended with his father’s death, with his mother slipping into depression and Alzheimer’s years later; Gabrielle Lloyd touchingly moves from fussing timidity to her moving decline.

But if that sounds a bit of a downer there are enough laugh-out-loud moments throughout: letters from Broadway telling of parties with Charles Boyer, Alexis Smith and Noel Coward (why weren’t we there?) causing Mam (who yearns for – yet never experiences – a cocktail party) to wonder what he’d find to talk to them about, depictions of his father’s (Jeff Rawle, splendid) handbag-holding duties while his wife powders her nose (Andrew is always entrusted to hold Phil’s when he visits the little boy’s room – Phil’s handbag that is), the contrasting vulgar confidence of his Oxford contemporary Russell Harty’s parents, and his mother’s inspired interpretation of the title Beyond the Fringe.

Nicholas Hytner‘s direction is unfussily appropriate and adroitly shifts the changing moods, but the evening belongs to Alex Jennings‘ persuasive, somberly dry, wry, Bennett. As someone was overheard saying at the interval “He’s more like Alan Bennett than Alan Bennett.” Well said.

After the disappointment of Bennett’s People it’s good to see these evocative and amusing recollections moving from the National into the West End. The first piece Hymn (directed by Nadia Fall) is a 30 minute reflection on the music of Bennett’s childhood and his unsuccessful attempts to learn the violin performed against the accompaniment of an impressive string quartet. It’s a charming amuse bouche which warms you up for the meat and potatoes of the even better second piece. It also offers an agreeably early break for the bar.

Naturally we’ll drink to that.

* For the record (amongst Phil’s discoveries): ground mixed spice (best before Oct 96), garlic salt (23.05.09), olive oil with truffle (18.04.03), active baking yeast (so old the best before has worn away). Anyone know if celery salt has an unlimited lifespan and why Phil might have bought it in the first place?




5 Responses to “Review – Untold Stories, Duchess Theatre”

  1. JohnnyFox Says:

    Celery Salt? Er, ingredient in Bloody Mary isn’t it?

    When we deconstructed my grandma’s larder-cum-fallout-shelter on her demise in 1974 we found several tins of plums dating from the war one of which exploded on piercing, and 37 different types of laxative. No wonder the walls were blast-proof.

  2. margarita Says:

    After a friend had to disperse the family home in Yorkshire she brought to London the contents of the kitchen cupboard without wasting anything. So when tomato sauce was offered to me it was 1/2 inch of dark brown sludge from a time long before Best Before …. had been invented.

    I look forward to seeing this production very soon.

  3. Overheard at the interval, this comment re Alex Jennings:
    He’s always so different; he’s such a camellia…..

  4. oddbohemian Says:

    Overheard, coming out of Madness of King George film [American accent]: Gee, do you think that was based on a true story? (I sent the quote to AB via his publisher, who told me he appreciated it).

    Celery salt: good for dipping hard-boiled quails’ eggs in. La.

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