Untold Stories – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
Untold Stories – Review
West Yorkshire Playhouse, June 2014
by Pauline Cooper
One of Yorkshire’s most famous and respected playwrights, screenwriter, actor and author, Alan Bennett grew up in a typical working class household. In this two-parter, Bennett, a private and introverted man, unusually turns the spotlight on himself. He shares his childhood and adolescence, journeying from shy misfit through national service and on to success and recognition in the world of theatre and film.
Reece Dinsdale, appearing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for the first time in 14-years, plays Bennett. He perfectly mimicks the deadpan delivery, wearing corduroy trousers and sports jacket. In the first part of Untold Stories, the excellent Ligeti Quartet accompany him with cello and violins. It’s a sombre tone as he describes his schooldays. They sing “Hymns known but never learnt” each morning in assembly. He goes on to describe how his father, keen to boost his butcher’s wages, plays the violin and attempts, unsuccessfully, to teach the young Alan. Regular Saturday nights at Leeds Town Hall listening to the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra inspire his love of music.
“A poignant reminder”
In the second half of the programme, Cocktail Sticks, the set design reflects Bennett’s parents’ home. It is complete with walnut cabinet, two-bar electric fire, lamp stand and Formica table. Bennett’s mother Lillian has ‘social aspirations’ gleaned from the pages of women’s magazines, coffee mornings and invitations to take sherry with the vicar. But dad scorns witty conversation and social gatherings. His salt-of-the-earth attitude to life sees these things as baffling and pointless. Clearing out his parents’ house, Bennett finds a small container of cocktail sticks, a poignant reminder of his mother’s once proud ambitions.
The play documents Bennett’s achievements – Oxford, the satirical review Beyond the Fringe, work including The Madness of King George III. It also follows Dad’s death and Mam’s slow descent into old age. The production itself first appears at the National Theatre in 2012 and subsequently transfers to the West End.
“Astute and comical”
Marjorie Yates, as Mam, perfectly captures the speech patterns and characters in Bennett’s work. Particularly the middle aged ladies who are dignified, astute and comical. John Arthur, as Dad, struggles to understand his son’s talent. This tense bewilderment is apparent in the father/son relationship in the piece.
In 2005 Bennett reveals that, in 1997, he has undergone treatment for cancer. He describes the illness as a ‘bore.’ His chances of survival are given as much less than 50 percent. He begins Untold Stories believing it will be published posthumously, but the cancer goes into remission.
Director Mark Rosenblatt says when it came to selecting plays to include in the season, putting Untold Stories on the list was a “no brainer”. Selecting lesser-known plays rather than blockbuster titles is essential when exploring Bennett’s complex relationship with his home city and his roots.