Saturday, 15 December 2018

Alan Bennett plucks at the heartstrings

ONE of Britain’s best-loved writers, Alan Bennett has a formidable reputation as a dramatist, but he

ONE of Britain’s best-loved writers, Alan Bennett has a formidable reputation as a dramatist, but he has also shared his innermost thoughts in his two autobiographies, Writing Home and Untold Stories.

And Untold Stories, now playing at the Watermill at Bagnor, is the collective title he has chosen for his two short plays which give audiences an entertaining means of getting to know him even better.

The first, Hymn, tells us much about his childhood and his relationship with his father, who, he tells us, was a self-taught violinist who enjoyed playing along to the radio, especially to the hymns on Sunday Half Hour.

Bennett is no stranger to Hymns, Ancient and Modern, and explains that all men of his generation have this now dying skill, usually demonstrated at funerals, due to compulsory hymn-singing in assembly at school.

And so it is that violin music, hymns, and his father are irrevocably intertwined in Bennett’s consciousness.

The piece is a series of memoirs accompanied by music composed by Bennett’s long-time friend George Fenton.

It was originally commissioned by The Medici Quartet and is here performed by the ensemble Richard Gibson (violin), John Kane (viola), Harry Napier (cello) and Kate Robson-Stuart (violin). And in true Watermill style, the musicianship is outstanding.

Fenton’s music brilliantly conveyed the angst and sense of failure that Bennett experienced as a 10-year-old boy being taught by his father, and were it not for the wicked sense of wit and irony that imbues all of Bennett’s writing, this piece could have been coloured with sadness and discord.

But Bennett’s admiration and love for his father lurks very close to the surface, though viewed with a writer’s detachment.

Cocktail Sticks concentrates more on Bennett’s parents as a couple, and particularly his relationship with his mother.

He admits to having been ashamed of them when he was a teenager — “my shame then is my shame now” — and draws the picture very poignantly of the vast chasm that formed between their respective lives following his success in Beyond the Fringe here and on Broadway.

In this production, directed by Tom Attenborough, Bennett’s superb writing is beautifully conveyed by a very accomplished cast.

Roger Ringrose quite simply is Bennett, but not in some sort of superficial tribute act way. His performance is so convincing that he achieves the impossible, and we have Alan Bennett in the room.

He is more than ably supported by Richard Gibson as Bennett’s Dad and Lucy Tregear as Mam, both interpreting Bennett’s affectionate descriptions to perfection.

There is no cheap sentimentality in Bennett’s writing here, more a revelation of the understanding of his parents that maturity has brought him.

In his words: “You don’t put yourself in your own writing — you find yourself there.”

Untold Stories is at the Watermill until Saturday June 11. For tickets, call the box office on 01635 46044 or visit

Review: Mary Scriven

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