Theatre review: Life and times of Alan Bennett are laid bare

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mUCH AS I hate the term ‘national treasure’ there’s no denying that Alan Bennett falls into that category.

Mention his name and it invariably evokes a softening of the eyes and a chorus of oohs and ahhs as your audience reflects on just how lovely they think he is. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ever say a bad word about him or about any of his plays, books, films or television shows.

As James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse says in his introduction to the programme for Untold Stories, which runs until June 21: “It is the tenderness, humour and deep humanity of his writing which so many people love.”

To commemorate the milestone that is Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday the West Yorkshire Playhouse has dedicated a great chunk of this season to celebrate the man and his work. The latest offering is Untold Stories, which, according to Brining was the spark that ignited the idea of the season in the first place.

Originally a book of Bennett’s memoirs, Untold Stories was published in 2005 and written when he had been diagnosed with cancer and expected to die. It’s a real ‘warts and all’ trawl through his life and one wonders if he would have been so candid if he’s realised he’d be around to see it published

Untold Stories is a production in two distinct halves. The first is a autobiographical story of Alan’s musical journey through life; it takes place in a radio recording studio and it tells of school trips to hear the orchestras at Leeds Town Hall, hymn singing and his father’s disappointment when he proves to be a less than able student as he tries to teach him how to play the violin. His cry of “Frame thisen,” made me smile as that was one of my father’s favourite rejoinders when either of his two daughters fell short on whatever task they were entrusted with.

Bennett’s words, spoken so convincingly by Reece Dinsdale you’d swear it was the great man himself, are accompanied beautifully by the London-based Ligeti string quartet, playing George Fenton’s live score. There is no action to speak of, merely Bennett walking around the stage and it does feel as though there’s something missing

Cocktail Sticks, the second half of the programme, is more substantial and is a trawl through Bennett’s early life and his relationship with this solidly upper working class parents in Armley. Writing in middle age he bemoans the fact that he had such an emotionally untraumatic childhood that he couldn’t find anything to write about.

His obvious love for his parents shines through his writing, despite their inability to change and embrace the modern world. John Arthur and Marjorie Yates portray Mam and Dad with exquisite tenderness, their no nonsense personalities an obvious influence on Bennett’s work. Mam’s descent into dementia is beautifully handled with quiet dignity, dad’s blustering nature a cover for the obvious love of his son. Bennett may have escaped Leeds and the family home at the age of 18 but there’s no denying just where his heart is.

The title of the piece refers to the time when Bennett clears out his parents’ house after their death and finds an unopened packet of cocktail sticks at the back of the kitchen cupboard, a symbol of his mother’s long-held desire to emulate the middle-classes and hold her own cocktail party.

Dinsdale once again plays Bennett with quiet dignity and playfulness - he is so convincing it is quite uncanny and though, occasionally resorting to caricature, I’m sure Bennett would approve.

The set is uncomplicated with a wardrobe used to make stage entrances and exits which emphasise particular points in the narrative.

There’s more Bennett still to come. Betty Blue Eyes a musical version of the hit film A Private Function, with screenplay written by Bennett, is on now until July 5 and Talking Heads, featuring three monologues: Chip in the Sugar, Bed Among The Lentils and Lady of Letters, opens on June 23 to July 5 and is also being performed at community venues around Leeds. Box office 0113 213 7700.

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