Continuing a season dedicated to Alan Bennett, West Yorkshire Playhouse presents a double bill of the Leeds-born author’s work in Untold Stories. Bringing together Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, the show is anchored by Bennett as portrayed by Reece Dinsdale.
Untold Stories begins as an intimate monologue recorded in a studio environment. Bennett reflects on his experiences growing up with music and his desire to perform and conform, underscored by the rousing strings of the Ligeti Quartet. Whilst brief and minimal, the piece is a rosy evocation, presenting Bennett in his older years as the confident orator. Composed of Cello, Viola and Violins, the Ligeti Quartet are seamlessly harmonized with Bennett’s lilting recollections, where days of violin lessons and escapades to distant churches on the West Riding are vividly described. As a palate-cleansing apéritif, Hymn prepares the table for Untold Stories’ main event; Cocktail Sticks.
A journey of recollection, exploration and confrontation, Cocktail Sticks retraces Bennett’s relationship with his parents, specifically the period when he became successful and was supporting them in older age.
Cocktail Sticks, like much of Bennett’s biographical work, pinpoints the small features in everyday life as a focal point to study larger themes. The discovery of cocktail sticks in his parents’ empty home recalls memories of his mother’s aspirations to be something of a social bon vivant. She is a mirror to Bennett’s own desire for adventure, or dramatic activity, within a household which is comfortably well-off yet tediously dull. It is a frustration which many creatives will share with Bennett, bringing in tow an undeniable “shame for the shame”.
Dinsdale delivers a superlative Bennett, capturing his physicality and intonations beautifully. There are moments where the performance is indistinguishable from the man. Never resorting to desperate caricature or impression, Dinsdale’s performance is a richly studied, subtle representation which stands alone as a character, bypassing any temptation for comparison.
Rosenblatt’s direction is simple and effective, employing subtle lighting techniques to cross-cut between space and time. The use of a wardrobe as a portal for characters to appear is inspired, whilst an almost junkyard set of bygone artefacts suitably mirrors the fractured recollections presented on stage. Several ages of Mam and Dad are superbly played by Marjorie Yates and John Arthur, pitched perfectly against Disndale who imperceptibly weaves between Bennett’s adolescent and adult persona. The ensemble cast are equally impressive, with Kate Anthony and Simon Roberts playing a multitude of colourful ancillary characters; a scene between a scholar and Russell Harty’s parents is hilariously pitched and is but one of a dozen vignettes which punctuate Bennett’s narration.
Nestled between the experimental Enjoy and the upcoming Talking Heads, Untold Stories is a gem among a treasure trove of theatre which is of great local value and global appeal. Funny and poignant, historical and prescient, this is theatre of the highest level executed with professionalism and passion.