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A CurtainUp London Review
The first piece Hymn is a nostalgic look at Bennett's butcher father's self starting with playing the violin and of the playwright's memories of church music in the 1940s and the church architecture of Yorkshire towns. With a string quartet on stage to create the musical memories and Alex Jennings giving a remarkable performance, Hymn is a piece of atmosphere rather than anything more dramatically striking. The disappointment here is that neither Bennett nor his brother took music as seriously as their father.
There is a tinge of regret as Bennett looks back on his life which is developed in the second and longer piece Cocktail Sticks. He thinks about how writers mine their experiences for material. Dipping in and out of his book Untold Stories, Cocktail Sticks starts with Bennett clearing out the cupboards in his mother's kitchen in Yorkshire after she has gone to live in a home in Weston Super Mare near his brother. He finds a small plastic box of cocktail sticks and remembers her reading of magazines and talking about holding a cocktail party. With a mischievous but affectionate sense of humour, Bennett finds the ridiculous in his life and he has that special flat Yorkshire delivery of the punch line which hits you unexpectedly and is all the more delightful for its understated element. Bennett also looks at his mother's periods of depression and time in hospital.
Much of Bennett's writing is about the English class system as he describes going up to Oxford and his family's reaction. "It was going to Oxford that altered you. You stopped wearing a vest and started having your main meal at night," says his mother. What Bennett feels now is shame at the shame he felt then about his parents outside their social milieu.
Jennings is joined onstage by Gabrielle Lloyd as his mother and Jeff Rawle as his father. Jennings has studied Bennett's accent and the straight faced way he looks through those signature horn rimmed spectacles. Some the mannerisms are there as well in what is a remarkable performance. Jennings stands as Bennett does, his arms folded across his chest holding his head slightly to one side with a serious expression.
Although I enjoyed seeing Cocktail Sticks, the memory of reading these recollections in Untold Stories several years ago is so fresh in my mind, I didn't feel there was anything new conveyed by dramatising scenes from the book. If you have heard Alan Bennett talking, when you read his witty and quirky prose, you can hear that strong Yorkshire accent and even sense his immaculate timing.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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